Hungary for the Truth: AFC South’s Biggest Weakness(?)


When looking at the rosters of the four AFC South teams, there is a good case for the division being one of the NFL’s strongest. There’s a first-ballot future Hall of Fame quarterback, three of the top 10 best running backs in the NFL, there are two of top 5 tight ends in Dallas Clark and Marcedes Lewis, and two All-Pro wide receivers, one of which might be the best in the NFL. There is less talent on the defensive side, but there are still plenty of elite players, especially along the defensive line. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Mario Williams, and Aaron Kampman are elite-level defensive ends and there are many up-and-coming defensive tackles like Jason Jones and Terrance Knighton. However, there is one position where this division is truly lacking elite talent – head coach.

When examining the four leaders of the AFC South teams, I see four men who are very much unproven. Jim Caldwell is still piloting the machine built by Polian and Dungy and is yet to be tested, leaving us unsure of what he’s capable of the chips are down and his back’s against the wall. Del Rio and Kubiak are perennially 8-8 finishers and despite showing flashes of brilliance, are yet to break through and define themselves of head coaches. Lastly is Jeff Fisher’s replacement, Mike Munchak, who has proven his worth as an offensive line coach, but nobody knows what he’s capable of when he’s at the helm.

You might point out that Jim Caldwell led his team to the Superbowl. But was he really the man in charge of that? I have serious doubts about it. When I’ve seen the Colts in past 1-2 years, I get the feeling that the real person in charge is #18. He is the ultimate one man show of the NFL and until someone else is under center in Indy, we will never know how good or bad of a coach Jim Caldwell really is. An outsider might think it’s the same old story with the Colts; as Peyton goes, so does the team. Some might say Caldwell just following his predecessors footsteps . Which is in my opinion not true,  Tony Dungy was the defensive coordinator basically in Indy until he left, so we can see and review his work -and success- over there. Caldwell in the other hand worked as a QB coach, and so all of his success originated from Peyton before he was promoted)- they dominate the regular season (or at least find a way to squeeze out the division) and then struggle in the playoffs. I’ve only seen evidence of one tough decision made by Caldwell (and it may still have been at Bill Polian’s urging) and that was letting their perfect record in 2009 fall by the wayside in the next to last week of the regular season, when the Colts stood 14-0. Indy was in the driver’s seat for the entire game (unlike the week before that against the Jaguars on Thursday Night Football) and were enjoying a nice lead against the Jets. Caldwell then inexplicably benched Manning and gave the keys to the offense to Curtis Painter, who lost the game in horrific fashion, leaving the entire Colts fanbase absolutely livid. That was the only real move by Caldwell and many would say it was the wrong one, despite making it to the Super Bowl that year, where they lost to the New Orleans Saints. Recently, Caldwell has lost a lot of great coaches, too. There were two key persons in the Colts’ coaching staff who helped Manning become the best QB in the game – offensive line coach Howard Mudd and former offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Now, Mudd is with the Philadelphia Eagles and Moore is now retired and serving as a “‘senior offensive assistant”. You have to wonder how that will affect Caldwell and Manning in 2011. But let’s return to Jim Caldwell. Yes, he has a great record as a head coach (24-8 and 2-2 in the postseason). Yes, he has made the playoffs in all three of his years at a head coach (and one Super Bowl). But the real question is still this – how big of a his role did Caldwell actually play in those last 3 years and how big was Peyton Manning’s role? I think we’ll have to see Caldwell without Manning for awhile before we see the real answer to that question.

Now let’s move on the to the most unlucky franchise in the NFL, the Houston Texans. Lately, they keep looking the part of a legitimate playoff candidate and get off to a promising start with a high-powered offense, but once November rolls around, the playoffs are slipping through their fingers yet again (since their inception in 2002, they are yet to make it to the post season). The Texans find ways to start losing games in such heartbreaking and bizarre fashion that even Jaguars fans start to feel sympathy for their fanbase – both games in ’09 come to mind (thanks to Kris Brown) or the worst moment of Glover Quin’s life in 2010, known as “The Rebound”. I don’t know how responsible Gary Kubiak is for the Texans’ woes. But Black & Teal’s Terry O’ Brian said 2 years ago that until Kubiak is no longer the head coach in Houston, they will never take the next step forward and reach the playoffs, because he is the prototype 8-8 coach. Truth be told, I get the same impression. He seems like a good guy and even a good coach, but he’s shown no sign that he’s able to keep the ship sailing straight through trouble waters. Since the Texans seem to find themselves in this predicament every season, a coach that can get them back on course seems essential. The terrible defense of recent years is at least part of the problem and the organization finally hit the reset button this offseason. New defensive coordinator, Wade Philips’ preferred system is the 3-4, which he is switching the Texans’ incumbent 4-3 defense to. With so many new players, including JJ Watt, Brooks Reed, and Brandon Harris, the defensive rebuild will take at least two seasons to complete. I don’t know how much time Kubiak has left if he falls short of the playoffs yet again, but if the new defensive system works out and the Texans’ players finally find what it takes to get to the playoffs, it may acquit Kubiak for his past struggles. However, if the Texans fail to reach the postseason yet again, I think Terry’s words will be proven to be true once and for all…and Gary Kubiak will be in need of another job.

Speaking of hitting the reset button, the Tennessee Titans have pretty much torn their whole team to the ground to build it anew. New head coach, new quarterback, new coordinators. Now they have a new head coach who’s spent 12 seasons as player with the Oilers and 16 seasons as a coach in Houston and Nashville. He knows exactly what he inherited when he became the man in charge – a mess. The Titans became a soap opera of off-the-field issues. Vince Young left the Titans deeply divided and likely cost Jeff Fisher his job. Cortland Finnegan provoked an on-field fist fight with Andre Johnson. Chris Johnson is a time bomb waiting to explode. Kenny Britt was arrested twice during this offseason and has six arrests since entering the league. And I’m not even going to mention the Randy Moss fiasco. The 2011 Titans are the NFL-equivalent of a Charlie Sheen hotel room, post-bender. Munchak is the maid who walks in on the mess and has to clean it up and so far, his approach has been very curious. His first decision as head coach was to fire offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who has spent the past few seasons building the offense around Chris Johnson. I wonder what new coordinator Chris Palmer’s offense will look alike with a brand new QB that despite possessing a great arm, has some troubling accuracy issues. With all the arrests, Kenny Britt likely has a suspension headed his way, either from the Titans or Roger Goodell. Also, the Titans have a new (though not completely new) defensive coordinator in Jerry Gray who is returning to Nashville after leaving the Titans in 2001. I’m very interested to see what he can make of this defense, because since Jim Schwartz and Al Haynesworth left this team, this part of the team has not been the same. They still might be the toughest defense in the division, but they’re not as dominant throughout the entire season as they’re capable of being. This is an area the Titans must focus on. With the end of the lockout still uncertain, Munchak certainly has his work cut out for him in installing new systems and culture in Tennessee, so we will have to wait to find out what this guy’s capable of.

Last but not least let’s have another closer look on Jack Del Rio’s work. For many he is representing the perfect example of the .500, middle of the road head coach (he had a 65-63 record, 1-2 in the playoffs in 8 years). The biggest issue is with Del Rio is inconsistency, which was the trade mark of his 8 year. Jaguars fans never know how will play their team in the next Sunday (besides the major part of ’07 for positive, and the second half of the ’08 season for negative reasons). Some blame this on the QBs, mostly David Garrard, and want to see when Blaine Gabbert taking over at QB, the inconsistency will remaining a problem, or will disappear. If the second option will be true, then the problem was in the QB. But if in the 1st, well… Another big issue with him is his staff changes. Although Del Rio’s philosophy to get fresh ideas (and also not blocking coaches making the next step in their career) is maybe reasonable, but the idea often backfires( couple of names coming to my mind right away: Ted Monachino, Gregg Williams, Donnie Henderson). Also since he lost Mike Smith his defense’s numbers toook a deep dive. The first signs were there with Smith in ’07, but since he left, something is missing at the Jaguars defense. Talent, strong secondary, sure.But I don’t remember for example that mistackles would have been so much of an issue for example, as has been lately. And I say this because defense (and gambe on 4th downs) are Jack Del Rio’s trademarks.  Another thing what comes to my mind about Jack Del Rio is – “player’s coach”. Yes. The younger players are becoming huge fans of their new head coach. That was never an issue (except a lone case with Gerald Sensabaugh). Even current free agent Mike Sims Walker praised him. Everybody praises him among the rookie and 2nd-3rd year players. Veterans? Now here is the situation a bit different. Del Rio had lately almost every year a feud with a well respected Jaguar. In ’08 was Mike Peterson. ’09 – John Henderson. He even got a liitle back and for with Fred Taylor (as a Patriots player – ’09). It seems like he losing his “mojo” once his players became older. That’s why I seriously think for a while, that Jack Del Rio will be probably most successful as a college head coach. The young players love him. He is very charismatic leader for any major program. All he need is a good offensive coordinator, and someone who will make the recruiting (Some who were really close to Del Rio between ’03-08 said, that if he would got the same right in the draft room, as Tom Coughlin, he might did a bigger devastation them Shack Harris – and in some of the questionable draft decesions – he had responsibility….).

Just like Kubiak, Del Rio must prove himself to his team’s owner. Although both have legitimate excuses this year if they again finish short of the playoffs (Kubiak – new defensive system, Del Rio – new QB), I think both have little time left to prove that they aren’t the one holding their teams back. As for Caldwell and Munchak, they’ll likely be fixtures with their team for at least several more years. We won’t know how great (or bad) Caldwell is until the real test comes – life without (or after) Peyton Manning. Munchak is facing some very tough challenges, but he’ll at least get 2-3 years to prove he can be a coach of Jeff Fisher’s caliber…or not. The talent may be there in the AFC South, but the head coaches undoubtedly have plenty of room left to grow.

–          Zoltan Paksa