Coaching searches shift to defense

While the coaching carousel is off to a slow start in terms of actual hires, it looks like a common theme for teams searching for new leadership is acquiring defensive minds over offensive gurus.

Rex Ryan, revered around the league for his defensive prowess, was the first coach to fill one of the NFL's seven vacancies, signing a five-year deal with the Buffalo Bills. Todd Bowles was next, with the Jets hiring the former Arizona defensive coordinator Tuesday night. Denver's Jack Del Rio, Carolina's Sean McDermott, Detroit's Teryl Austin and Seattle's Dan Quinn are also popular names among the teams pursuing a new coach. [Editor's note: Del Rio was hired as head coach of the Raiders Wednesday afternoon, according to sources.]

There's no way to predict how many on that list will join Ryan in the head-coaching ranks, but more and more franchises have adopted a defensive mentality in trying to rebuild their respective franchises. While those candidates all have credentials that merit them a look as head coach, the real reason behind their popularity may be how increasingly difficult it has become to find a legit franchise quarterback.

If you can't land the right signal-caller, it behooves teams to build a staunch defense and support it with a quality running attack until that elusive franchise QB can be obtained. Former Bills coach Doug Marrone gave up on EJ Manuel after 15 career games and reportedly wasn't in favor of the Bills trading away their 2015 first-round pick to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins, leading to his departure.

With questions lingering about Manuel's abilities to succeed running an NFL offense, the Bills got defensive in hiring Ryan, hoping he can further enhance their already-stout defense to bide time until the right quarterback becomes available. The Bills yielded 18.1 points a game in 2014, good for fourth in the league, while journeyman Kyle Orton, who announced his retirement after the regular season, guided the offense to 21.4 points a game. The result was a 9-7 record. The hope is that Ryan and whomever he picks to start at QB can maintain or surpass that win total by leaning heavily on the defense and his scheme.

New Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said it best Tuesday: "Franchise QBs aren't just walking the streets." It's easier to win with a franchise quarterback, but not impossible to compete without one.

Only eight starting quarterbacks picked in 2008 or later have done enough to merit second contracts. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton comprise the five quarterbacks from that group to receive extensions -- all worth between $16 million and $20.75 million. Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are in line to net theirs next year. Ryan Tannehill probably deserves an extension, but the jury is still out on his long-term future, as it also is for Eagles QB Nick Foles.

If you exclude Foles, you are looking at only nine franchise quarterbacks -- fewer than two per year -- in the discussion as legit drafted solutions under center over the past seven years. With an average of seven coaching changes at the end of each year, many new hires will inherit QB-needy situations with long odds of landing that player before they are fired. In a quarterback-driven league, without the right one, franchises can't bank on their offense to produce wins.

There are several suitable offensive coordinator candidates for jobs, with Adam Gase (Denver), Darrell Bevell (Seattle), Pep Hamilton (Indianapolis), Frank Reich (San Diego) and Kyle Shanahan all garnering interviews so far, but without the requisite talent under center, their offensive prowess may be diminished.

It's easier to upgrade a defense and rely on it combined with a solid ground attack to keep games close rather than to pick an offensive coach who will struggle to implement his scheme due to limitations at quarterback. And that plays into why defensive coaches are in vogue this offseason.

From the Inbox

Q: I am curious about the scouting system in the NFL. Do all teams have access to the same information or does each organization depend on its own staff for information? If so, shouldn't these people garner more attention? When staffs turn over, does the scouting structure stay in place or are the scouts out with the coaches as well? With so many bad picks at places like Cleveland and Washington, how much blame should be shared with the scouting staff? I would think that in any rebuilding of an organization the scouting staff is almost the most important group. It is impossible to win without talent.

Richard in San Antonio

A: Franchises study everything. Teams subscribe to scouting services such as National or Blesto and get reports on all players from them. General managers then set up their own scouting. They have regional scouts scouring sections of the country. The college scouting director does the double-checks. The general manager makes the decision. You are correct in thinking the blame should be shared by the scouting departments. If the scouting job isn't done well, the general manager gets fired and that's where the shakeout begins.

Q: When the news came out regarding the Hall of Fame finalists, I got curious about the process and tracked down a preliminary list of candidates on the HOF's website. Who decides who goes on that preliminary list? Who, for instance, determined that Shawn Springs and Jon Jansen should be nominees, but not Muhsin Muhammad?

Dan in Madison, Wisconsin

A: The preliminary list includes nominees who received votes in the previous year. The Hall then asks us voters to send in additional nominations if we feel as though someone is missing. The Hall will nominate newly eligible players with Pro Bowl experience. That creates a comprehensive second preliminary list that is sent to each voter. We then pick 25 nominees and send them in to be tabulated. The list is cut to 15 and we go to the Super Bowl to pick the final five.

Q: Why doesn't the NFL hold a draft lottery? Playoff teams would still pick 21-32, so there is no chance the Broncos get Jameis Winston. They love to put anything on TV, and everyone would watch. Look at the Pro Bowl draft, for instance.

Derek in Seattle

A: A lottery would work against what the NFL is trying to do. The NFL wants the worst teams to get the best players in the draft to speed up their chances of being competitive. If you go to a lottery system, it rewards luck. Indianapolis Colts fans suffered through a 2-14 season. Imagine the outrage if the Colts couldn't draft Andrew Luck and he went to a team that had a 7-9 record. The Colts wouldn't have been in the playoffs for the past three years, and an average team would get the reward of having the best player in a draft.

Q: I am a Broncos fan and crushed by this latest loss. My question is about timeout usage. It seems to me that all teams wait too long to use their timeouts to save clock at the end of games. With 7-8 minutes left, why didn't the Broncos start using their timeouts? The Colts had the ball, the lead and was bleeding the clock. Taking them then and getting the stop would have meant the Broncos would have had closer to six minutes left for two scores, rather than two minutes. It was moot at the end today, but when you need time for scores, why not use them up earlier?

Martin in Clifton, New Jersey

A: Even though he wasn't throwing well, Peyton Manning has been a quarterback who can put together a touchdown drive in a minute or less. Very few coaches are going to use up their timeouts with seven or eight minutes left in games because they lose too much control of their destiny. A coach also has to keep one timeout just in case he wants to do a replay challenge. Most coaches will start using their timeouts in the final four minutes or close to the two-minute warning. I don't have any problem with John Fox's game management down the stretch. A top quarterback can get two scoring drives in less than four minutes. I do feel your pain for the lost game. That has to be devastating for a Broncos fan.

Q: Why would Rex Ryan think the Bills' job is a better situation than what the 49ers or Falcons potentially had to offer? I realize Bills have a great D-line, but didn't he just go to another situation with a glaring hole at quarterback?

Thomas in San Antonio

A: Ryan wasn't guaranteed to get that second offer. The Falcons passed on him once before, when GM Thomas Dimitroff picked Mike Smith over him in 2008. The 49ers have good defensive coaches and he felt they could promote from within, which would leave him out. The clincher was getting a five-year deal for $27.5 million. Ryan has financial security and won't feel any pressure until his fourth year if things don't work out. He made a good move.

Q: Why are the owners still supporting Roger Goodell? It can't be because of the money they have made while he has been commissioner. They would have made tons of money with a different commissioner, too. Goodell has lost all credibility with the players and the fans at this point, so it's baffling to see the owners letting him keep his job.

Peter in New York

A: The Ray Rice decision shouldn't bring down a commissioner who has helped to grow the popularity of the game and made a lot of money for the owners. He was wrong to give Rice a two-game suspension and he admitted it. He didn't see the elevator video and it was confirmed he didn't lie when he said he hadn't seen the video. A lie was the only thing that would cause him to lose his job. Tell me why Goodell shouldn't have the full support of his owners. He makes them money and the game grows. Those are the owners' primary concerns.