Biggest regrets: These 2012 moves will be rued

Posted July 16, 2012 @ 4:30 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

You could argue that the Saints will look back and regret they didn’t give Drew Brees his $20 million per year sooner. Enveloped in the Bounty scandal, this franchise badly needed its rudder this offseason.

It’s good that the two sides got together, and Brees can do his best to help the healing process. In the end, there will be no long-term lament with this deal. The Saints got their guy, and Brees got paid. Done and done. All sides — counting the flummoxed and irritated fans as the third rail in this equation — win with this deal.

There are different forms of regret. There’s immediate fan-reaction regret that lasts one season, or part of one season. To wit: There’s a very good chance this season that Robert Griffin III and the Redskins are far more successful than Andrew Luck and the Colts. His rookie season will be a weekly gauntlet, and if Peyton Manning does anything out in Denver, the masses will ask: Did the Colts make two major mistakes — first letting Manning go, and then taking Luck over Griffin?

In the end, it says here, Luck will be very good. That regret will not stick long term.

But for the rest of the people and teams on this list, it will.

Had Brees and the Saints not come to a long-term accord, that story would have topped this list. Instead, we found 10 other things that will go down, when we look back, as the 10 biggest regrets that came out of this NFL calendar year:

1. Texans letting Mario go

The Texans had a brutal decision to make this offseason, but it was a problem they created themselves. How they did not lock up DE Mario Williams prior to free agency will go down as one of the biggest mysteries of the year. Although the defensive system they are playing was not a perfect fit with Williams’ skills, he was making the most of it with five sacks through five games last season, prior to going down with a torn pectoral. He’s 27 and the most destructive defensive player in the franchise’s history. Williams appeared to be a loyal player before the Texans made it clear he was out of their price range. Had they taken care of business more than a year ago — you can’t tell me Bob McNair and Co. didn’t see the lockout coming — Williams likely would be a Texan still. And so too could have RB Arian Foster and ORT Eric Winston. The team could have franchised Foster, who was due to become a restricted free agent, if they were worried about losing him to a bonanza offer sheet from another team. Instead, they signed Foster to an extension, were forced to cut Winston (an underrated loss) and trade MLB DeMeco Ryans (who also wasn’t a perfect fit but who still had a role) and use a first-round pick on a pass rusher (Whitney Mercilus) who was a one-year wonder in college and faces a steep learning curve. It seems like bad business to pay a running back and not a pass rusher, and the Texans will regret this move in time. Running backs come and go, flash and fade, but franchise defensive players are once-a-decade type of assets.

2. Seahawks signing Flynn

Let’s be totally frank here: The Seahawks’ newish braintrust hasn’t exactly aced its QB evaluations the past few years. They pulled the plug on Matt Hasselbeck, who might have had another good year in him as he showed in Tennessee. They brought in Tarvaris Jackson — who is what he is — after the move to get Charlie Whitehurst totally backfired. Whitehurst was so unseaworthy that he was allowed to walk (crawl?) back to San Diego without any attempt to re-sign him. And though the deal for Matt Flynn wasn’t an insane one ($10 million guaranteed), considering what starting quarterbacks go for these days, it was a move they might not have had to make. Why? Because — and stop me if you’ve heard me shout this once or twice this offseason — in time, maybe soon, Russell Wilson will end up being the better QB for this team. Flynn is a nice player, he is. He’s smart, has underrated touch and arm action, and he appears to have strong leadership traits. But Wilson has a little more of each, plus an added athletic trait that Flynn lacks. The only things Flynn has on Wilson right now are two inches of height and two NFL starts. Well, and a little NFL experience as a backup and third-stringer, but paraphrasing John Wooden, I’ll take talent over experience every day. I am not sure when it happens, but Wilson will render Flynn obsolete in Seattle.

3. Cardinals not getting another QB

There’s a part of me that thinks sixth-rounder Ryan Lindley might be one of the hidden gems of this class. But there’s another inkling that tells me he might be no more talented than the other two lower-middle-class quarterbacks on the Cardinals’ roster. Kevin Kolb, by many measures, has been shafted a bit. He was prepped to be the starter in Philly and then never really got the chance after getting hurt once Mike Vick stole it from him. And after nine so-so games with the Cardinals, fans there seem ready to move on. It’s unfair, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Kolb and John Skelton only can do so much. They are what scouts commonly refer to as “system guys.” Kurt Warner was no system guy. He thrived in one offense in St. Louis, and after getting washed out of New York, he thrived again in a different scheme in Arizona. Neither of the top two guys on the roster now — and perhaps not Lindley, certainly not now — are going to approach that level of performance. The Cardinals sniffed around Peyton Manning, and they had a puncher’s chance of getting him for a few minutes. But it never should have gotten to that level. This team likely faces drafting a quarterback next year because they failed to get one this offseason who can challenge for a starting job when Kolb and Skelton, inevitably, fall short. They won’t fall flat, but neither is capable of making a decent team with some talent into a playoff contender this year. It’s a division where winning a wild card was certainly possible, but not now.

4. Ravens not upgrading offensive line

The Ravens probably should have been in the Super Bowl. A few dropped passes and Matt Birk prevented them from facing the Giants in Indianapolis for all the marbles. Yeah, it’s tough to lay it all on one guy, and especially one as respected as Birk. He thought about retirement this offseason, and given the way Vince Wilfork manhandled him in the AFC championship game, you could see why. But he is back and appears to be the only real option to start at center. And Birk won’t have the luxury of leaning on Ben Grubbs, a top-tier guard who left the Ravens to sign with the Saints. Not lining up an upgrade for Birk or an adequate replacement for Grubbs were two rare but major personnel slipups by Ozzie Newsome and his terrific staff. They apparently will turn to 35-year-old Bobbie Williams, who like Birk is a fantastic person and outstanding teammate. But can they play? QB Joe Flacco is entering a contract season, and the Ravens are Super Bowl contenders. They need Flacco upright, and neither interior player is a quality pass blocker anymore. Williams, too, suffered a season-ending ankle injury in 2011. When you throw in the question of age and motivation with OLT Bryant McKinnie, these questions become all the more deafening. The Ravens might have made a poor call here when they didn’t find some better and younger options.

5. The Patriots not signing Welker now

Welker will play this season under the franchise tender, and he very well might help lead the team to a Super Bowl title. The Patriots are loaded again, and he’ll have more help at receiver than he has had since his first year with the team. Perhaps the arrival of new players at the position makes Welker less of a weapon as before, but it won’t diminish his effect on the offense. If anything, it’s a player such as Welker that gives Tom Brady so many options and makes him remain deadly at this stage of his career. You can’t leave Welker open to cover the tight ends because he’ll kill you at the chains, racking up first downs like mad. You can’t double him every play, either, because Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and others will crush you down the field or on the sidelines. I understand that you can’t pay everyone and that the Patriots are among the best teams ever at knowing when to pull the plug on players and what their true worth is. But I think they might be misreading this one slightly. The chance of signing Welker to a long-term deal only goes down in the offseason, and you can’t tell me that Julian Edelman or Jeremy Ebert or anyone else would be ready to assume Welker’s role and do all that he does in 2013. No way. Even as he comes up on age 32 next year, you can’t tell me his skills have eroded that much and wouldn’t remain viable for the next three or four years.

6. Eagles not finding better backup for McCoy

The Eagles remained mostly quiet this offseason, and given the way their acquisition blitz panned out a year ago after the lockout, this approach went over fairly well with most fans. They made smart moves (trading for DeMeco Ryans), necessary ones (signing Demetress Bell to replace an injured Jason Peters) and a few additions for talent on depth in the draft. It was a smart, measured approach. But one position they might have overlooked is running back. LeSean McCoy is coming off one of the best seasons in franchise history by a running back, and he changed the focus of the offense to more of a run-heavy approach than Andy Reid had showed in 13 seasons. But McCoy was on the field nearly 90 percent of the plays in 2011, and for a player of his physical stature, that’s asking for trouble if it happens again. The team saw what happened when Brian Westbrook broke down, and McCoy appears the better all-around talent. They have to do a better job of preserving him for the next several years, having just signed him this offseason to a huge contract extension. But the immediate solutions are far from dependable. Dion Lewis, last year’s fifth-round pick, appears to be little more than a third-down back, and he recently got in trouble with the law. Rookies Bryce Brown (seventh round) and Chris Polk (undrafted) could end up the top candidates to spell McCoy. That’s scary, even though both have promise. If McCoy gets hurt, the dropoff would be significant, and it would put that much more pressure on Michael Vick. In a pivotal season that will determine whether he will remain long term in Philadelphia, Vick doesn’t need any more hurdles to overcome. And the Eagles need their best offesive player in McCoy to stay upright in order to make a Super Bowl run. Trusting two rookies to vie for such an important insurance policy is risky at best.

7. Joe Philbin taking the Dolphins’ job

Notice how I phrased it. Far be it from me to tell a man who previously had not interviewed for a head-coaching job not to take the position once the Dolphins had offered it. After all, he might never have had this real a chance again. But the Dolphins situation is fairly scary when you consider the lack of organizational strength. Owner Stephen Ross has shown himself to be a fairly sophomoric NFL owner in his two-plus seasons with the team. He has made googly eyes at some big fish (Jim Harbaugh, Peyton Manning, Jeff Fisher to name a few) and has yet to catch his man. The hiring of Philbin raised some eyebrows, not because he wasn’t qualified, but because he lacked the big-ticket name of the coaches that Ross appeared to favor. The questionable status of maligned GM Jeff Ireland only makes things worse. If Ireland becomes the scapegoat this season or next, the man Ross hires to replace him might not hesitate to fire Philbin and move in a different direction. The Dolphins are asking him to win now with two suspect QB options in Matt Moore and David Garrard. Nothing against either guy, but they were both cut by QB-needy franchises in the past two seasons and have limited upside. Will Philbin even get a chance to see how good Ryan Tannehill can become? It might be the next coach who inherits that task. Nothing against Philbin, who appears to be a talented teacher who is well regarded league-wide, but staying in Green Bay and making a run or two at a title might have looked pretty good when he looks back on his decision.

8. Jets not getting rid of Holmes

Others will blame the arrival of Tim Tebow for bringing the circus to town, but it has been WR Santonio Holmes who put this tent up first and got the show underway. He has proven to be a malcontent and a team breaker, and yet the Jets brought him back this season, instead trying to pin the blame on ousted WR Plaxico Burress. After a brief dog and pony show where QB Mark Sanchez and Holmes feigned their admiration for each other at a Knicks game, the folly has been exposed. Holmes is no different now than he was before. People were stunned, even with a pending four-game suspension, that the Steelers would unload him to the Jets for peanuts on the dollar two years ago. But they knew what they were dealing with — and they ended up with the draft pick that netted them Antonio Brown, a lopsided victory for the Steelers in that trade. Holmes once more will divide a locker room that already stands on shaky ground with Tebow’s presence (not his fault, but still) and CB Darrelle Revis (stunner) threatening holdout again. This caustic atmosphere could be the end of Rex Ryan, as good a coach as he is. If you play with fire, you have to prepare to be burned, so the Jets had better cloak themselves in retardant. Holmes will flame someone this season, and as his 2011 stats show, he’s not worth it.

9. Bill O’Brien taking the Penn State job

There were two days between the time Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien took the Penn State coaching job vacated by the Joe Paterno-Jerry Sandusky scandal and when the Patriots found a familiar face in O’Brien’s replacement. The sporting world cried foul when the Patriots brought back Josh McDaniels, who had been fired by the Rams a week before, as a violation of the spirit of some unwritten rule because the Patriots were in the playoffs. Outside of that argument, you could make the argument that Belichick had been eyeing McDaniels and that O’Brien saw the writing on the wall. But that doesn’t mean O’Brien needed to jump at what might be the biggest rebuilding job in recent college history. This job isn’t about recruiting and coaching and talent as much as it is a total program restart, with the hawking eyes of the NCAA, media, parents of recruits and alumni glowering down on a daily basis. You could argue it’s the biggest scandal in college football since the 1987 SMU “Death Penalty,” and it took that program nearly 25 years to rebound. It won’t take Penn State that long to win games again, but the stigma and the stink of the Sandusky story will stain that program for more than a generation. Meanwhile, the Patriots appear poised to return to the Super Bowl again, this season, next, or both. If O’Brien cleanses that program — and what a tall order that will be — he’ll be hailed as a savior; if not, it was a questionable move.

10. Lions not finding more secondary help

The Lions might have taken notice that the Patriots and Packers managed to do OK last season with suspect pass defense — 31st and 32nd in the NFL, respectively. Perhaps that was the Lions’ thinking when they chose to significantly upgrade their secondary with ready-made DB talent as the team legitimately has entered the Super Bowl discussion for the first time in 15 years. But if that’s the case, their thinking is flawed. The Packers might have given up beaucoup yards, but they had the playmakers in the secondary to bail them out. The Patriots schemed extremely well last season and peaked their performance on the back end in the Super Bowl. A quick look at the remainder of the top contenders from a year ago — the Giants, 49ers, Ravens and Texans, among them — shows that those teams were fairly loaded in the secondary, with both depth and talent. Teams these days need a minimum of three quality cover men, plus safeties who can cover lots of ground or slide up into the slot if needed. The Falcons, Saints and, yes, Lions all can point to poor coverage for their premature playoff runs a year ago. And yes, it’s true: A pass rush can solve a lot of coverage issues. It did for the Packers in 2010 when they won it all, as well as the Saints in ’09. The Giants last season had the best front line in football by season’s end; their pass rush confounded Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith and Tom Brady. The Lions have the talent to have that same effect, but the defensive line did not play up to snuff in 2011. Can you count on a big improvement? Or if not, can you hope that the DBs somehow get better? Losing Eric Wright, drafting Dwight Bentley (and others), promoting Aaron Berry and keeping Amari Spievey in the starting lineup do not represent a net gain for a unit that was shaky down the stretch. Pass defense looms at the Lions’ Achilles heel this season and could keep them from a big run.