Topics this week include the top candidates for Assistant Coach of the Year, a look at the quarterbacks the Cleveland Browns have passed on in the NFL draft since 2004 and the Jacksonville Jaguars' search for a new head coach. Plus: Are the Chargers getting ready to play their last game in San Diego? A look at the quarterbacks representing the AFC in the postseason and more.
Top Assistant Coach of the Year candidates
When voters for the Associated Press awards cast their ballots next week, their ballots will include an award for the NFL's top assistant coach. That's a worthy recognition, especially when one canvasses various football executives and head coaches -- the list of candidates for 2016 seemed endless.
Here's a fair sampling, not necessarily in order:
Scott Linehan, offensive coordinator | Dallas Cowboys: Yes, the Cowboys have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, but Linehan's work with rookie QB Dak Prescott was described by one exec as a "five-star coaching clinic."
Dante Scarnecchia, offensive line coach | New England Patriots: The return of Scarnecchia after a two-year retirement produced a rejuvenated and cohesive unit that has protected Tom Brady and made the Patriots one of the more effective rushing teams in the NFL, led by LeGarrette Blount's league-high 17 rushing touchdowns.
Kyle Shanahan, offensive coordinator | Atlanta Falcons: All the numbers that make QB Matt Ryan an MVP favorite fall under Shanahan's domain. The Falcons have led the NFL in points per game (33.5), which includes 11 games in which the offense posted 30 points or better, four of which exceeded 40 points. Ryan completed touchdown passes to 13 different players, and the running game was explosive with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator | New England Patriots: It demands a reminder: The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady, two of those wins with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett. Don't forget that tight end Rob Gronkowski also was out in the beginning and the final stretch.
Bill Musgrave, offensive coordinator | Oakland Raiders: Musgrave's personality is understated -- he seeks no accolades -- but the Raiders are the second-highest scoring team in the NFL. Musgrave's development of Derek Carr is a model for head coaches looking for the right man to lead an offense. Jack Del Rio found his in Musgrave.
Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator | Miami Dolphins: Now much of the extended NFL world understands why Joseph was a coveted assistant in Cincinnati before Adam Gase finally landed his man to bring some cohesiveness to a defense that has had to overcome some injuries to complement the grit and resiliency of a Dolphins team that has secured a playoff berth.
Matt Patricia, defensive coordinator | New England Patriots: The bearded one has earned his own niche; the Patriots have given up the NFL's fewest points (236). Yes, the Patriots did not face a dearth of dynamic offenses, but Patricia found ways to overcome the losses of arguably the unit's two best athletes in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins via trades. He's an intriguing head coach candidate.
Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator | Detroit Lions: The Monday night prime-time collapse against the Cowboys wasn't a shining moment for Austin, but it was the Lions' defense that consistently kept the team in games, which enabled those fourth-quarter comebacks by QB Matthew Stafford that made this team an unlikely contender.
Dave Toub, special teams coach | Kansas City Chiefs: If any special teams coordinator deserves to be put among worthy head coaching lists, it is Toub, whose units shine in every area.
Sean McVay, offensive coordinator | Washington Redskins: He's young at 30 years old, but with a lot of buzz and has had notable production from QB Kirk Cousins.
Todd Haley, offensive coordinator | Pittsburgh Steelers: When you have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, Le'Veon Bell at running back, Antonio Brown at wide receiver and Mike Munchak as your offensive line coach, the accolades don't flow easily. But Haley got some mention.
Rod Marinelli, defensive coordinator | Dallas Cowboys: Marinelli is one of the most admired assistants in the league. He has worked with a relatively short deck, makes no excuses, takes no prisoners and has provided some blitz packages out of necessity that keeps opponents honest.
-- Chris Mortensen
Cleveland's track record for passing up on star QBs
Now that the Browns have their first win out of the way, they can move on to more pressing business: finding their quarterback of the future. Too many times they have had the chance to land him, only to pass.
When the Browns close out their season Sunday at Pittsburgh, they'll get an up-close look at the quarterback that should have ended Cleveland's string of sadness ... but instead extended it.
Back in 2004, when Cleveland had quarterbacks Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown and Kelly Holcomb on its roster, the Browns drafted tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. with the sixth overall pick. Five picks later, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was then that a trend that has continued to this day began, of the Browns bypassing a quarterback (or quarterbacks) who went on to bigger and better things than the players Cleveland drafted ahead of them.
The year after the Browns bypassed Roethlisberger in favor of Winslow, they drafted wide receiver Braylon Edwards with the third overall pick. Aaron Rodgers went 21 picks later to the Green Bay Packers.
Some years passed before in the 2011 draft, when Cleveland drafted defensive tackle Phil Taylor with the 21st overall selection. Fourteen picks later, the Cincinnati Bengals selected quarterback Andy Dalton.
Then the mistakes began compounding. In 2012, the Browns drafted running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz before the Seattle Seahawks took Russell Wilson with the 75th overall selection. The Browns then went on to draft John Hughes and Travis Benjamin before the Washington Redskins picked Kirk Cousins 102nd overall in that very same draft.
In 2014, the Browns drafted cornerback Justin Gilbert and quarterback Johnny Manziel before the Vikings used the 32nd overall pick on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Cleveland then drafted offensive lineman Joel Bitonio before the Oakland Raiders drafted quarterback Derek Carr with the 36th overall pick and the New England Patriots drafted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with the 62nd overall pick.
And then, earlier this year, the Browns traded away the second overall pick that the Eagles used on quarterback Carson Wentz. A final judgment on that move cannot be made now, nor likely for the next couple of years. But, the Browns did draft eight players -- Corey Coleman, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, Shon Coleman, Cody Kessler, Joe Schobert, Ricardo Louis, Derrick Kindred -- before the Dallas Cowboys used a compensatory pick with the 135th overall pick at the bottom of the fourth round to draft quarterback Dak Prescott.
It's easy for teams to make draft mistakes; every team does it. There are hits and there are misses. No one's record is flawless. But the Browns have had a long-standing habit of making the wrong decisions at the most important position in all of sports They've gone 52 seasons without a championship and, not surprisingly and almost correspondingly, strung together an almost equally embarrassing streak of selecting the wrong quarterback. For the sake of their fans and their franchise, this is the biggest mistake they need to correct.
-- Adam Schefter
Settling on a successor in Jacksonville
Even though the Jacksonville Jaguars have hired Korn Ferry International to assist with the search for Gus Bradley's successor as head coach, owner Shad Khan will be anything but a passive participant.
Khan and son Tony, who is the team's vice president of technology and analytics, each met with Tom Coughlin and interim coach Doug Marrone this week. Eventually, general manager Dave Caldwell will be involved in the process, but sources say Khan sees this as a defining moment for what will be the sixth full year of his ownership in 2017.
The next coach of the Jaguars is expected to have prior head coaching experience, unlike Bradley, per league sources. Coughlin and Marrone both meet the preferred qualifications in that respect. That's also why Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith is a strong candidate based on his success as the Atlanta Falcons head coach during a six-year run.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley have each served head coaching stints and are on the Jaguars list, but league sources don't believe there is a match for them.
League sources also say Khan has been very encouraged by heavy interest from a number of established coaches. Positives? The Jaguars do have some young talent, the AFC South is seen as a mediocre division and Khan is a tremendous success story who has helped his image with the coaching community because he's not a meddler who displayed fair patience with Bradley. The Jacksonville region is also a more desirable living area than perception because of its golf courses, beaches and climate.
The negatives cited by a handful of football executives are Khan's commitment to playing an annual home game in London and common knowledge that Caldwell is convinced Blake Bortles is a franchise quarterback, though Caldwell has stated publicly that the next coach is not obligated to Bortles.
Jed Hughes is the lead football man for Korn Ferry, the search firm. The value of a search firm is debated among clubs. but Korn Ferry can arguably vet candidates to a deeper degree, accomplish some of the tedious legwork, provide cover for any interest in or from a college coach and, as one executive said with a laugh, "you always have that gray area of tampering with another head coach in place or perhaps a head coach in limbo. That's why they have agents who can't necessarily call the team directly."
-- Chris Mortensen
The Los Angeles Chargers?
It's not final, not yet anyway. But multiple league sources believe there's a real chance that Sunday could be the Chargers last game in San Diego.
Owner Dean Spanos has said he won't make a decision on whether to move the Chargers to Los Angeles until after the season. But after Sunday, there's a real chance Spanos and the Chargers will be filing a relocation application to move to Los Angeles and become tenants in Stan Kroenke's $2.66 billion Inglewood Stadium.
Signs are in place. The Chargers already have leased part of a Costa Mesa office campus for next year so the team will have offices and a practice area should they move to Los Angeles. Many around the league believe that, barring an unforeseen last-minute breakthrough with the city of San Diego, the Chargers will be headed back to the city in which they originated, but away from their home since the 1961 season.
During their time in San Diego, from Balboa Stadium to San Diego Stadium to San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium to Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers have given the city one AFL Championship, one AFC Championship, 15 AFC West titles and 18 playoff appearances. But San Diego has not given back the Chargers enough to make them want to stay.
This could be the end of a great run, with so many great players from Dan Fouts to LaDainian Tomlinson to Lance Alworth to Junior Seau. The Chargers' final game is rife with playoff implications for their division-rival Chiefs and Raiders, with those two teams still vying for the AFC West title and a first-round bye. San Diego will have a say in who comes out on top. But Chargers fans are coming out on the bottom now, with this potentially being the sendoff of a team they have loved, but which has not felt supported enough.
-- Adam Schefter
The division of 'haves' and 'have nots'
Now that the AFC playoff field has been set -- New England, Pittsburgh, Houston, Oakland, Kansas City, Miami -- the theme has been established: It will be the "haves" vs. the "have nots."
Veterans Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith will lead their teams while Tom Savage, Matt McGloin and Matt Moore will lead theirs -- the latter of which have never have started an NFL postseason game, no less won one. Meanwhile, Brady has 22 postseason wins on his resume, nine more than the other starting five AFC postseason quarterbacks combined.
It puts New England in a prime position to have the postseason go its way. After a bye, there's a decent chance the Patriots will host either Savage and the Texans or McGloin and the Raiders in the AFC divisional playoff. One of those quarterbacks will likely be charged with slaying Brady in New England.
Having an experienced, established quarterback assures nothing in the postseason. But because the Patriots are a "have," they have a chance to reach Houston and Super Bowl LI.
-- Adam Schefter
Emptying the notebook
This is the advantage the Cowboys have earned: Sunday's game in Philadelphia is the last time Dallas has to leave the state of Texas until next season. Dallas has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and Super Bowl LI is being played in Houston. Therefore, if the Cowboys season lasts as long as it can, their divisional playoff game and NFC title game would be played in AT&T Stadium, and the Super Bowl about 250 miles away in Texas. If that were to happen, Dallas would join the 1976 Raiders and 1984 49ers as the only teams to play their playoff games and Super Bowl in the same state in the same season. But no team has done it in 33 years -- it's just one more piece of history the Cowboys will try to accomplish.
When Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer described quarterback Sam Bradford's season as "pretty amazing" in the wake of extraordinary circumstances, he pretty much declared what was conventional wisdom: Bradford will enter the 2017 season as the starter and Teddy Bridgewater will provide the depth, if Bridgewater recovers from his disclosed knee injury. Both QBs have one year remaining on their contracts; Bradford is set to make $17 million and Bridgewater $1,354,023.
Michael Floyd's first court appearance related to his DUI charges is scheduled for a pretrial hearing Feb. 24, shortly before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Any team that considers signing Floyd will want to know that Arizona is a mandatory sentencing state, so if there's a conviction, Floyd will have to spend time in jail. The length of time is the question. Since Floyd is in the super extreme blood-alcohol level, a first offense carries a 45-day jail sentence. But if the courts consider this a second offense -- and Floyd has alcohol-related brushes with the law in the past -- a super-extreme DUI comes with 180 days in jail, which would jeopardize his availability for the 2017 season. Either way, Floyd will finish out this season knowing more significant issues await him in the offseason.
Antonio Gates wants to return for a 15th season, but he's well aware that rookie Hunter Henry will be the featured tight end for the Chargers next year. It will be interesting to see if the team asks Gates to take a pay cut from his $5.5 million salary on the books next year -- the salary cap will certainly allow it, but the Chargers could be looking to trim some cash obligations with their stadium crisis.
The NFC East is the only division in which its quarterbacks -- Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz -- have not missed a single start.
This marks the 17th straight season the Buffalo Bills will miss the playoffs. Their last playoff appearance, amazingly enough, was the Music City Miracle game they lost at Tennessee (and that was a forward lateral).
-- Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter