Three weeks ago, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 0-4 instead of their current 0-7, a general manager from another team singled them out as the one struggling NFL team most likely to rebound in a big way next season. The GM felt Tampa Bay had the talent to compete and simply needed a spark of some sort, perhaps through a change at quarterback or in the head coach.
While the Buccaneers continue to stand by second-year coach Greg Schiano, at least for now, ESPN.com's Matt Williamson and Mike Sando consider what the team's plan should be moving forward -- on the sideline and through the offseason.
Williamson: He needs to go. This is the most obviously warranted coaching change in the league right now. I'm still not a big believer that it does a lot of good in the middle of the season. It doesn't accomplish much to just get him out of the building now. But the effort this team is putting forth is terrible. They looked disinterested in their last game. They are not schematically diverse. All Schiano wants to do is run the ball and stop the run. You don't win Super Bowls that way.
Sando: There might be only a small chance Schiano turns things around and becomes the coach the Bucs thought they were getting. There is zero chance of that happening if the team fires him. And what is the upside with Dave Wannstedt or Butch Davis in charge? What it comes down to, really, is whether the negativity surrounding Schiano has reached a point that the organization feels it needs to change the subject. Firing the coach turns the attention to next season. While Schiano deserves criticism, I think it's only fair to acknowledge that we wouldn't be having this conversation if the Buccaneers had gotten better play at quarterback.
Williamson: Yes, but Josh Freeman got too much blame. I think it's easy to just say the quarterback stinks. To me, the biggest problem, quarterback aside, is they are not living up to their talent. They are the Kansas City Chiefs of last year. And some of the stuff we've heard about Schiano -- that he's a bully and tough to deal with -- is very much consistent with what I heard of him during his Rutgers days. We recruited against Schiano when I was at Pitt, and I came into contact with people who worked for him back then. He did a great job turning that program around and he could really recruit. He doesn't lack for hard work or aggression, but that stuff goes only so far at the pro level. What's wrong from a football standpoint?
Sando: The negativity takes on a life of its own in these situations, especially when the head coach has a reputation as being more hardline in nature. The Bucs' record makes Schiano an easy target. Much of what he does becomes subject for ridicule, not just criticism or analysis, and some of the ridicule seems opportunistic. For example, this week I noticed Pro Football Focus hadDarrelle Revis ranked as the top-performing cornerback in the NFL through Week 8. The public narrative says the Bucs are wasting Revis' talents by using him in zone coverage too frequently. That might be true, but Revis still has been the best corner in the league, according to people who chart all the plays. What are the real scheme complaints you have regarding Schiano?
Williamson: He is not out-scheming anybody. Rex Ryan will out-scheme you on defense. Nothing jumps out at me as redeeming about Schiano's scheme. His lineage comes from the University of Miami. The old-school way of doing things at the U was to play a 4-3 defense and not be too creative until third down because we've got better Jimmys and Joes than you do. Last year, Wannstedt ran the most vanilla defense in the league for Buffalo. It was almost embarrassing. The Bills' defense is 10 times better this year without being 10 times better personnel wise.
Sando: And that hits at one of the key points on Revis. If you're going to pay a cornerback $16 million a year, the defense probably needs to revolve around him. No other corner in the league is earning even $11 million annually, so Revis is basically making quarterback money. If only he could play that position, the Bucs might not be in their current predicament.
Can Mike Glennon be the long-term QB?
Williamson: We don't know that yet, but we've seen glimpses. Hopefully, the season will tell us that. Let's be optimistic and say he has a chance to be a franchise quarterback, which is true right now from what I've seen. Glennon does a lot of things well. If he can be a franchise QB, it solves a lot of problems, as this team doesn't need much else. Let's say they have the second overall pick. What do they want? They don't have a glaring hole. They can still approach the draft as going for the best players available.
Sando: And if Glennon is not looking like the answer by season's end, the Bucs could still take one of the top quarterbacks early in the draft. They could then trade Glennon or keep him as a low-priced backup with upside. Glennon has five touchdown passes with one interception over his past three starts. He's also taken eight sacks, including five on third down, over that span. But that is life with a young quarterback. This team ranks 32nd in yards per play, 31st in points per game (14.3), 31st in point per drive (1.15) and 31st in percentage of drives producing points (23.5). I don't see those numbers improving in Seattle this week.
Williamson: The Bucs are in good shape for the longer term even if Glennon doesn't pan out. They could use the second overall pick for Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota, then take the best player available at the beginning of every round. In that case, you might get the 20th guy on your board with the 34th pick. It really does remind me of the Chiefs. They needed a QB, took a short cut and brought in a guy with a limited ceiling who cost them two second-rounders and is vastly better than what they had last season. This Tampa Bay team is constructed well. The GM, Mark Dominik, is doing a good job with the roster overall.
Williamson: It would be great to get the next Andy Reid, the guy who has won a lot of games in this league and brings an instant personality, charisma and leadership to the building.
Sando: What about Lovie Smith? He has the background in Tampa, he would command respect instantly and he would strike the right balance between being a players' coach (Raheem Morris) and being too far the other way (Schiano). I know people would immediately say Revis wouldn't fit in a Cover 2 defense. That would have to be a consideration, but it's also true that Smith ran a lot more man defense later in his time with the Bears.
Williamson: I like it, but my only reservation is that you'd better get a great quarterbacks coach or QB guru because we all know how that situation worked out for Smith in Chicago. Whoever the quarterback is will be young and need work. Maybe someone like Mike Mularkey would make sense. He had two years left on his deal in Jacksonville when the Jaguars fired him. He's available.
Sando: When you hire a defensive head coach, you almost need that Norv Turner type who is good but won't necessarily be on everyone's list to become a head coach. That is one reason I'd really prefer an offensive-minded head coach in general. The owner, head coach and quarterback are usually the three most important figures in an organization. Hiring an offensive-minded head coach provides a quarterback insurance against losing a coordinator. Greg Roman of the San Francisco 49ers was one potential candidate I recommended when we discussed the Minnesota Vikings' future during our conversation last week.
Williamson: I like the roster. Guard Davin Joseph ($6 million salary in 2014) might be the one salary-related roster dump in the offseason. They are not great anywhere, but they do not have huge holes. Their top two needs are for an edge pass-rusher, and then the offensive line needs a starter or two. Getting Carl Nicks healthy would go a long way there. They could use one outside linebacker, another tight end as an upgrade to Timothy Wright and a slot receiver. But you don't absolutely have to have any of those. They can bring in some vets in free agency off winning teams and hopefully they step up. It wouldn't hurt if they had one or two guys in the Ed Reedmold as high-quality individuals who have won. I doubt that locker room has guys like that. Collectively, those players on that team don't have many wins under their belts.
Sando: Tampa Bay has the third-youngest defensive players behind those for Cleveland and San Diego. The offensive players are younger than the league average. Thirteen of the 14 players with the highest scheduled salary-cap charges for 2014 remain under contract through at least 2015. Gerald McCoy is the exception, as his deal runs through 2014 only. If Schiano fails to stick around, someone is going to walk into a pretty good situation. This is not Jacksonville by any stretch. The Buccaneers do need to decide whether Revis is worth $16 million for a second season. If Revis remains on the roster March 13, the Bucs will have to send their 2014 third-round pick to the Jets. Otherwise, the Jets will receive Tampa Bay's fourth-round pick.
Williamson: The quarterback is the first decision they have to make. They could bring in a veteran as a good No. 2, someone in the Matt Hasselbeck mold who is good in the meeting room with Glennon. Or they use that first-rounder for a QB. Either way, they will not have a ton of money tied up in the position. They'll be better than they are now with Glennon as the quality No. 2 or as the starter. Some of that might be scheme-dependent. Glennon is a pocket passer. If you keep him, you could wind up potentially getting Jadeveon Clowney with the second pick in the draft. Put him on the line with McCoy and a potentially great secondary with Lavonte Davidat linebacker and they could be really good in a hurry.
Building a championship NFL team is a challenging enterprise. The draft and free agency offer limited opportunities. Great players are scarce, and great quarterbacks scarcer. If you happen to draft first when Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck is available, life can be pretty good. But even then, there are no guarantees -- especially with top QBs ultimately consuming so much salary-cap space.
Perhaps that is why personnel analysts seemed to enjoy an easier theoretical team-building exercise: picking five current NFL players as building blocks for an imaginary expansion franchise. ESPN analyst and six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian joined ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson and three current high-ranking NFL personnel evaluators in providing their selections and reasoning for this column. Four of the five built their hypothetical teams around the same quarterback. They selected as many defensive linemen as the combined total for offensive linemen, receivers and cornerbacks.
"It was hard because you are dealing with a universe of maybe a dozen players," Polian said. "What it really comes down to is positional value."
Polian and Williamson spoke for attribution. Our other three analysts included a current general manager, a former GM and a personnel director. Those three were interested in providing honest answers without hurting feelings in their own locker rooms or around the league. We'll refer to them as GM1, GM2 and GM3 for reference here. The choices these five made produced five key takeaways:
Now, the fun part. We'll post the players each analyst selected and a few of their thoughts.
Team-builder: Bill Polian
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Tamba Hali
Polian's general thinking: "I went with players who would reasonably play another five years, have avoided injuries and have not been in trouble with the law."
Who just missed the cut: "Luke Kuechly andRyan Clady were the next two. They were easy ones. Then I would have gone running back, but really, who is that? Peterson is 28. You start to get a little antsy there. My eighth guy probably would have been Ziggy Ansah when it's all said and done. That would firm up the rush front. With Ansah, it comes down to positional value and he's young and he's under contract for five years. Then I'd take Patrick Peterson. He is injury free, whereas Darrelle Revis has the injury history."
Why Kuechly is so high: "He's the quarterback of the defense. Plus, he is the best diagnose guy in the league and he plays three downs. He sees the play and gets to the ball faster than anybody else. The question was Kuechly or going with a comparable safety. To me, there is no comparable safety. Earl Thomas is closest, but he's a ball hawk. Eric Berry, he has been up and down. Eric Weddle is a little on the older side. Troy Polamalu has been the best and interestingly he's healthy this year, but he is older. It was a tough call because Berry has everything you want, but I'd go with Kuechly because you need a quarterback of the defense and he is that guy."
Why no Von Miller: "If I've got five or 10 picks, do I want to gamble? You could lose a whole year [to suspension if Miller violates NFL policy again]."
His second QB choice: "I'll go with Rodgers on the thinking that he is going to play at least five more years."
Team-builder: Matt Williamson
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas
I asked Williamson which five players he would select if his first five were not available. He went with Russell Wilson, Muhammad Wilkerson, A.J. Green, Jimmy Graham and Richard Sherman. Before this season, Williamson had said he would narrowly favor Colin Kaepernick over Wilson in terms of long-range outlook. The first seven weeks of the 2013 season have swung his thinking toward Wilson, but just barely.
"Choosing Wilson as my second QB was not an easy decision," Williamson said. "I considered Rodgers, as well. He's just such a safe choice, but age was an obvious deterrent when putting together a team for the long term. Wilson is playing amazing football right now, and he is just further along than Kaepernick with the finer points of playing the position. He is the safer choice."
Williamson did not take a cornerback among his top five. Sherman topped his list of corners and made his alternative five.
"I do very much like Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis, as well as Joe Haden," Williamson said. "Revis isn't yet 100 percent and he is the oldest of the group, so I put him behind the others. Peterson is the least consistent but also the most talented, while Haden is playing the best right now. Sherman is both young and playing great while coming off the best year of any corner. Plus, he brings attitude, which I love."
Those interested in following up with Williamson can find him on Twitter at @WilliamsonNFL.
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, Von Miller, Joe Thomas, Calvin Johnson, J.J. Watt
General philosophy: "The three hardest positions to find are quarterback, left tackle and elite pass-rusher. After those three, I would go for the immediate difference-maker regardless of position. How does he affect the game?"
Close call at QB: "If you are not Peyton Manning or Tom Brady and your mind doesn't process information with lightning speed, then I think you need a combination of several attributes. Mobility, foot speed and athleticism become more valuable, in addition to throwing with touch, placement, accuracy and those things. I went back and forth between Rodgers and Luck. I would probably give it to Luck right now. He is the better athlete. Rodgers is better as a pure passer."
Why Von Miller at No. 2: "Flat-out ability. He is young, dominant and can flat-out change a game. He changes field position. He changes it from a turnover standpoint."
Thoughts on final three slots: "Joe Thomas was third because great left tackles are so hard to find. You could probably name 10 double-digit sack guys on defense, but how many great tackles are there? Thomas is an elite player, and he protects the No. 1 guy on our list. At four and five, I would go with the most freakish athletes that are difference-makers. We've never given anyone a higher grade than we gave to Calvin Johnson. He has such rare size, speed, explosiveness, strength, smarts, work ethic -- he's got it all. Five is a tough one. Patrick Peterson is close, but J.J. Watt really has no weaknesses. He can play in multiple fronts, and you have to account for him on every snap."
Top five choices: Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Joe Thomas, Richard Sherman, Geno Atkins
This current NFL talent evaluator noted that Watt could play anywhere on the line and dominate against run or pass. He listed no receivers in his top five, but A.J. Green was very close to making the cut as the fifth player on his list. He would favor Green over Megatron for reasons explained below.
On Luck's appeal: "He is like Peyton in that, every 10 years, some guy comes along who is really special. RG III is a stud, I love Russell Wilson and think Ryan Tannehill has a chance to be a stud. But Luck, it's all there. He took a 2-14 team to the playoffs as a rookie. Think about that. That is unheard of. They had lost Peyton, they had no offensive line, the defense was horrible and Luck found a way to get them to the playoffs. Very impressive."
Why Atkins made the cut: "Finding interior pass-rushers is so hard. If you can get that guard mismatch and beat them, you force the pressure up the middle and it messes up everything for the offense."
Green over Megatron: "Calvin is a damn good player, but Green is the whole package with his age and he can do everything. He can be quick, he can be fast, he can be strong and he can take the top end off the defense at any time. I think he is a better route runner than Calvin. He has more quickness out of his breaks. Calvin is tough. They are both phenomenal athletes. I think Green is quicker and he is faster. He has early speed, which means he can hit it and go out of a break, where Calvin is more of a buildup guy."
Top five choices: Adrian Peterson, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Thomas, Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis
The final personnel analyst went against the grain by selecting a running back. He also wasn't quite ready to go with Luck over Rodgers.
On the QBs: "I'm going to wait for Luck to get through the playoffs again and see how he does there before I jump on that bandwagon all the way."
Thinking at RB: "If you have just any running back, you can replace him easily. The special guys at that position, they can score from anywhere on the field. With Adrian Peterson's size, he can be a power back. With his speed, he can run away from you. He can score from his own 2-yard line, or he can power it in from your 2. He's a special back who you can throw dump-offs to and checkdowns to, and he can make things happen after the catch, as well. He's an every-down back, and he's not just good in all the situations -- he is great."
Why Suh went fourth: "I'm taking the nastiest, most athletic, powerful, physical guy. Suh makes people around him better or nastier or whatever he is at the time. When you get a guy like that, an inside rusher who can collapse the pocket at any time, it makes those outside guys better, too."
On the left tackle: "Give me Jason Peters if he's healthy. He can do anything. He can bend, he's athletic. It's just the Achilles and the injuries have slowed him."
The CB decision: "Richard Sherman was also a really strong consideration for me, but Revis will get healthy. I like his style of play and think people would say he's good right now but watch him when he gets healthy. He will be healthy next year, and he's special."
On Sunday, the Denver Broncos fell behind the Washington Redskins 21-7 in the third quarter after a DeAngelo Hall pick-six. But the rest of the game, Denver outscored Washington 38-0 behind a suffocating defense, led by a ferocious pass rush and a much improved pass defense that shut down Robert Griffin III.
How good is Denver's defense now, with Von Miller back and an improved pass rush?
Before this game, Denver was considered to have a good run defense, but a porous pass defense (allowing nearly 320 yards per game, ranking 32nd in the league). And Washington actually a lot of success running the ball Sunday. Alfred Morris ran hard through some huge holes as the Broncos' run defense struggled quite a bit, surrendering 5.5 yards a carry. It's important to remember, though, that Denver's run defense has probably been a bit overrated, since the Broncos have been playing with the lead for most of the games this season and opposing offenses have had to throw to keep up with Manning and the Broncos' amazing offense. We also saw a lot more 3-4 looks from Denver's defense on Sunday, with Miller and Shaun Phillips at outside linebacker and Kevin Vickerson manning the nose. The logic behind this tactic was to take away the outside run by Griffin with Miller and Phillips playing outside contain. But again, it helped to allow for Morris' impressive afternoon.
While Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed combined for 15 catches, with Reed racking up 90 yards (most of which came after the catch), the Redskins threw for only a paltry 154 yards in the game -- and 48 of those came from Kirk Cousins when the game was well out of reach. This was a dominant performance by Denver's pass defense, which was without Champ Bailey and Tony Carter for the entire game and lost Duke Ihenacho late in the first half. Bailey and Carter have had their struggles this season, but Ihenacho has been outstanding throughout the 2013 season. The Broncos like to play a lot of man coverage and stuck with that strategy, as well as bump-and-run on the outside. Rodgers-Cromartie played a great game, often eliminating Garcon from the equation. Garcon finished the game with just 46 receiving yards and no big plays, and Denver picked off Manning four times. In fact, Griffin was fortunate that he wasn't intercepted early in the second quarter when he made a simply awful decision with the ball while under pressure.
But the No. 1 key in this game was the constant pressure that the Broncos applied to Griffin, who finally departed late in the game with a knee injury. He was sacked only three times, but was under constant duress. The biggest reason for this was Miller. Miller made some plays in Indianapolis last weekend, but was not a dominant player. He is fantastic stunting or slanting to the inside, but few rush off the edge with Miller's combination of first-step quickness, pass-rush moves, agility, balance, leverage and closing burst when the quarterback is in sight. While he had a fantastic strip sack early in the fourth quarter, Miller's stat line wasn't overwhelming Sunday, but he is a truly great player -- and great players make the job of those around them easier, as well as eat up double-teams. He is even more valuable to this team now after the loss of Denver's other edge rusher, Elvis Dumervil, this offseason.
We saw that on full display Sunday, as the Redskins had to account for Miller in their pass protection schemes which made Phillips, Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe and the up-and-coming Malik Jackson all the more lethal. Defensive ends by trade, Ayers, Wolfe and Jackson can all create pass-rush matchup problems on the interior with their quickness. Griffin rarely looked comfortable in this game, took many hits and flat-out missed open receivers at times while mixing in some poor decisions. The Broncos were allowing deep completions at a disconcerting rate before this game, but the longest completion of the day for Washington was 17 yards, most of which came after the catch. The reason for such a change? Denver's pass rush, which got consistent pressure without blitzing, allow the Broncos' secondary to not have to cover for as long.
Next week Denver has its bye, which should suit Manning's ailing ankle, Denver's reshuffled offensive line and the Broncos' other assorted injuries. This team could be at its best -- and will have to be -- as it returns in Week 10 in San Diego before hosting the Chiefs, traveling to New England and then to Kansas City in Week 13. With an improved pass rush, and Bailey eventually returning from injury, Denver has just widened the gap between itself and the rest of the AFC.