Leadership: Frank Reich (HC/OC), Gus Bradley (DC), Matt Ryan (QB)
The Colts are interesting from a leadership perspective. I believe strongly in Frank Reich and his leadership over the offense. Without him, one could argue the Eagles wouldn’t have won the championship back in 2017. His understanding of offensive schemes and his attention to detail show up on tape, especially in that road game against Arizona last year when the four of his starting offensive linemen were sidelined with injury. Most other organizations would be incapable of adjusting - not only did Reich adjust, but his men outright won the game.
But I’ll tell you this - his ability to evaluate quarterbacks needs to be called into question. First, the man tried to gamble on old man Philip Rivers. When that failed to pan out, the organization gave up valuable draft capital to bring Carson Wentz into the fold. It was believed that under Frank Reich’s mentorship, the former first-rounder would blossom again. Instead…the exact opposite happened - the same mistakes and egotistical mindset that plagued him in Philadelphia resurfaced in Indianapolis. But despite that, the team was literally on the cusp of a playoff berth…until Carson went and squandered that away in two embarrassing late-season losses. The Colts quickly became a laughingstock for closing out the season in such disappointing fashion. If there was a silver lining to their campaign last year, it’s that Wentz finally realized his true calling - to be a noose choking the life out of any team unfortunate enough to have him on their roster.
This year, the team again dipped into the well of aging quarterbacks by bringing Matt Ryan on board. The hope here is that Ryan can realize his true potential now that he can count on actual football players to protect him inside the pocket, instead of the cadavers Atlanta fielded in front of him. Even better than that, Ryan now finds himself in a very favorable situation considering Indy has one of the league’s best offensive lines. If he can shrug off whatever PTSD followed him from Atlanta, he and Reich can make some real hay in terms of offensive production, especially if Jonathan Taylor returns in top form this season.
Gus Bradley remains another interesting question as well. It’s easy to dismiss the man after his disastrous years over in Jacksonville and his stubborn insistence on running a defensive scheme long after it’s been decoded. But the Raiders defensive unit he coached last year performed surprisingly well, especially in the tail end of the season when Vegas was fighting for a wild-card invite. Bradley also found ways to leverage Yannick Ngakoue’s skill set, something Minnesota nor Baltimore could quite figure out.
Still…it does worry me that the Raiders defense surrendered over 40 points against the Chiefs both times they met last year. It’s not good when a division rival dominates you so thoroughly in two meetings, especially when those meetings are only a few weeks apart from one another. Rewatching the first half of their Sunday night match-up in 2021, the Raiders were selling out to play the deep ball, leaving easy completions to Travis Kelce underneath. Actually, these completions shouldn’t have come as easy as they did, but it seems the Raiders linebackers and safeties were helpless against Kelce. Even a starting cornerback couldn’t do much against Kelce in press coverage. Vegas adjusted in the second half by playing more cover-three, but Mahomes and Tyreek Hill adjusted quickly as well, connecting on some deep passes against the thinly-manned defensive backfield. It’s possible that the Chiefs were simply more amped to play the game compared to the Raiders, especially as Jon Gruden wasn’t there to stoke that hatred against Kansas that used to fuel Vegas. But it’s still disappointing that an organization that played these Chiefs so ferociously the year before completely collapsed, and defensive ineptitude played a large role in why this collapse happened.
In the end, I’m not sure what to make of this Indy team. It needs a few big uncertainties to fall in their favor, and as I’ve learned the hard way in making these preseason forecasts, teams that have multiple questions to answer don’t usually end up answering all of them in positive fashion.
New Orleans Saints
Leaders: Dennis Allen (HC/DC), Pete Carmichael (OC), Jameis Winston / Andy Dalton / Taysom Hill (QB)
It’s hard to assess these Saints. First off, Dennis Allen’s previous head coaching experience was disastrous, to say the least. Though it can be argued he wasn’t given much help in terms of roster talent, the Raiders only logged 8 wins under him while losing 22 contests.
As a defensive coordinator though, the man’s worked magic, marshaling quite a bit of production from a roster that’s above average at best. His defense consistently kept teams in negative EPA territory last season. A few of the sadder performances they put forth last year came when they suffered as a result of mistakes the offense kept making. Despite the offense literally flailing through much of the season because of all the instability at the quarterback position, the defense was so good that the Saints finished the year with a winning record. That being said, New Orleans did have one sorry outing against Philadelphia late in the season. It was obvious the Eagles could only matriculate the ball through the ground game, but Allen’s defense still managed to cough up over 200 yards against the Eagles on the ground.
But as head coach, it remains to be seen whether the man can install the type of culture and discipline Sean Payton was able to cultivate in the organization. Coordinators have quite a few responsibilities, but head coaches are uniquely charged with a certain responsibility that can’t be learned by anybody not in that role - head coaches need to provide the glue capable of holding a club together through the travails of the season. And that glue isn’t easy to make. If anything, it’s more an art than a science, as there’s no one formula out there to help coaches develop that glue. A mix of judiciousness, authority, respect, composure, and organization skills are needed to install a sort of culture capable of binding a team together. Whether Dennis Allen finished learning all those skills during his tenure under Sean Payton remains to be seen.
On top of that, Payton’s absence also means Pete Carmichael is now formally assuming offensive coordinator duties. Carmichael will now be shepherding this unit on game day instead of Payton. Is he ready? I have no idea, to be frank. He’s spent 16 years working jointly with Payton. Now he’ll have to assume the role without any guidance from his former head coach.
The Saints will be interesting to watch. Not much is expected from them, but they’ll still be exciting to watch only to see whether Allen and Carmichael can rise to the next level now that they’ll be heading into battle without their trusted general.
Leaders: Lovie Smith (HC/DC), Pep Hamilton (OC), Davis Mills (QB)
Lovie Smith was promoted to top coach after David Culley was fired at the end of the season. It was an odd promotion though, given Houston’s front office was rumored to be eyeing Josh McCown for the head coach position before Brian Flores ruffled the NFL’s feathers with his discrimination lawsuit. In the wake of that lawsuit and all the publicity it garnered, Houston’s general management shied away from McCown, knowing that hiring a white man who’s never before been coach as their next head coach would have made for some exceptionally bad press. If anything, it would have practically validated Flores’ allegations that the league discriminated against hiring minorities to fill coaching vacancies. So McCown’s candidacy was quickly quashed and Lovie was picked to assume the role of top coach in the organization.
Lovie Smith’s previous head coaching stints have produced mixed results. Sure, he managed to take the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance back in 2006, but that was 16 years ago. Ever since Chicago forced him out unceremoniously several years later, his head coaching resume has been an absolute disaster. His reputation bounced up a bit last year after Houston’s defense exceeded expectations by feasting on turnovers. But on so many other metrics, the defense fell hopelessly short. Not to mention that unit relied on older journeymen trekking towards the end of their respective careers. It remains to be seen whether the unit actually boasts enough young talent to sustain them for the foreseeable future. Either way, don’t expect much from a unit that thrived off turnovers, as turnover opportunities are too volatile on a year-to-year basis to be considered sustainable. No matter what fans believe, quality defenses just cannot base their success on turnovers. In fact, one look at the EPA chart for the Texans defense should show you how wild turnovers can be.
Pretty nuts, isn’t it?
On the other side of the ball, you have Pep Hamilton now replacing Tim Kelly. Honestly, Pep doesn’t inspire much confidence. He’s built his reputation as a quarterback whisperer, but one wonders whether that reputation is justified. Would Andrew Luck or Justin Herbert be household names if Pep wasn’t there to train them? We’ll never know for certain, but I’d bet good money the both of them would have done just fine with or without Hamilton.
To his credit though, he has worked some magic with Davis Mills last year. Mills was considered a rough prospect last year when the Texans scooped him up in the third round of the draft. And even though Mills had plenty of forgettable moments last season, it’s pretty clear the kid played much better as the season progressed. His best game literally came against a Charger team who the bookmakers pegged as double-digit favorites. Despite Houston losing the majority of its personnel on offense to COVID, Davis Mills played fantastic and actually led the team to a win.
Let’s wrap this up. Houston is still very much in the throes of a rebuild here. Things aren’t expected to change very much from last year, especially after most of the coaching staff last year has been retained this year despite Culley’s firing. The front office inserting themselves as much as they do in coaching matters and game-planning doesn’t help either…
Leaders: Mike Tomlin (HC/DC), Teryl Austin (DC), Matt Canada (OC), Mason Rudolph / Mitch Trubisky / Kenny Pickett (QB)
It’s difficult to assess these Steelers. For one thing, the quarterback position is completely unsettled, and will likely be in constant flux through the season as injuries and disappointments mount. It’s also tough assessing Matt Canada’s influence on this team even though it’s his second year now as a Steeler - the only real insight I could gather from his first season with the organization is that he couldn’t stop Roethlisberger from playing like a corpse. And to be fair, it’s not really his fault - even the best coordinators could only so much with quarterbacks who’ve clearly aged way past their prime. With Ben out of the way this year, we may see his vision for the passing game finally realized, though it may need to be simplified if quarterbacks are rotating in and out of the starting role.
Defensively, Pittsburgh is a mixed bag. Despite being loaded to the gills with talent on that side of the ball, it was a year full of highs and lows. Against solid competition, the defense took way too many haymakers to the chin. Against lesser opponents though, the defense held their own, especially when those lesser opponents were division rivals.
And really, that becomes the story of Pittsburgh last year. It was a team that fought hard against mediocre teams only to get bowled over by stronger opponents. With the exceptions of a Titans club missing most of its playmakers on offense and a Buffalo squad caught slacking at the beginning of the season, these Steelers were constantly housed by playoff and playoff-adjacent teams.
Maybe things can change this season, especially as Mike Tomlin looks to revitalize the defense by changing up key pieces of his coaching staff. Still, it’s hard to see this team improving by leaps and bounds, especially if the quarterback position remains an open question for most of the year.