It was hardly after midnight when the scythes started sweeping down.
With Atlanta’s late-night firing of head coach Arthur Smith, the NFL’s Black Monday started within minutes. Washington’s Ron Rivera was dismissed later in the morning after four seasons plagued by all kinds of tumult, including an ownership change. Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer was also fired, presiding over a season that capsized a long time ago for a franchise that doesn’t even have its 2024 first-round pick as consolation.
What do these franchises have in common, along with the Las Vegas Raiders who fired Josh McDaniels midseason? They all were franchises that said, either publicly or through sourced reports, they would not pursue Lamar Jackson this past offseason.
A thousand small decisions often wind up making or breaking an NFL season, but sometimes whiffing on the no-brainers is enough to merit a reckoning.
Frankly, these firings barely scratch the surface: Ultimately it falls on owners — Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, Carolina’s David Tepper, and Las Vegas’ Mark Davis (Washington’s ownership was in transition) — to agree to chase and spend on marquee players like Jackson. While none of the owners are losing their jobs, dismissing head coaches and general managers is a painful admission that something went wrong along the way, pressing reset and hoping fan bases aren’t bristling with impatience and frustration.
This is not to revel in people losing their jobs. Nor is it to suggest that missing out on Jackson — the odds-on favorite to win a second MVP award — is the primary reason these folks were fired. But any one of these Black Monday casualties might have been saved had their organizations tried to take a big swing for Jackson, who on March 7 was designated with a nonexclusive franchise tag that left him open to negotiate with any NFL team.
No one bit, a mystery that still lingers to this day and should haunt a number of NFL personnel who are cleaning out their desks this week.
It was less than two weeks ago when former All-Pro J.J. Watt said on “The Pat McAfee Show”: “Everybody this offseason who came out and said, ‘We don’t want him. Nope, we’re not interested.’ … If your GM said that, fire him.”
The words weren’t so much a prophecy as much as common sense, but as Watt suggested, many of the high-level decision-makers who did that exact thing are either gone or on a tremendously hot seat.
Poor quarterback play was a common denominator of at least these four franchises (and others who still might wind up making coaching and personnel changes):
- Desmond Ridder was decidedly not the guy in Atlanta (7-10), throwing as many touchdowns (12) as interceptions for the 22nd-ranked passing offense in the league.
- In Washington (4-13), Sam Howell threw a league-high 21 interceptions.
- Carolina (2-15) had so, so many problems, but among them was top overall pick Bryce Young underperforming as a rookie (2,877 yards, 11 TDs, 10 INTs).
- Las Vegas (8-9) stumbled out of the gates with their uninspiring free agency signing of Jimmy Garoppolo, then got serviceable play from rookie Aidan O’Connell (12 TD passes, four of which were thrown in a blowout against the hapless Chargers).
At least the Falcons and the Raiders should wonder if they might still be playing if they had somehow pulled off a deal for Jackson, who has set career highs in yards and completion percentage while still showcasing a dynamic rushing and scrambling ability. There were questions about Jackson this offseason after 2021 and 2022 ended with injury, but not taking a flier on a former MVP (who just turned 27) is a head-scratcher for franchises that, frankly, had little to show at the most important position in team sports.
There are some caveats. Even though the Ravens technically allowed Jackson, who represented himself, to negotiate with other teams, it would have been harder to actually pry him from their grasp. Baltimore could have matched any other team’s offer sheet, and if they hadn’t, they would have been owed that team’s next two first-round picks. Jackson serving as his own agent added a layer of unpredictability to the process: At one point, the NFL sent out a memo that seemed to imply Ken Francis, a gym equipment salesman, was acting as an uncertified agent.
And yet even with those factors, how were there precisely no offer sheets? ESPN reported that the Panthers and Raiders both expressed interest, but “neither team got overly aggressive” with Jackson. I wonder if Fitterer or former Raiders general manager David Ziegler (who was fired midseason with McDaniels) would replay that hand with more determination if given the chance.
The buck doesn’t stop there, either. If you were the New Orleans Saints, would you rather have Jackson or Derek Carr? If you were the New York Jets, would you rather have Jackson or that insufferable windbag Aaron Rodgers?
These are more no-brainer questions, which lead to more concerning issues. If so many “football people” who are paid millions of dollars couldn’t determine that adding Lamar freaking Jackson would help their teams (and potentially save their jobs), that hints at a systemic issue. The NFL Players Association has made the case it’s collusion. It’s not a far logical leap.
After Deshaun Watson signed a fully guaranteed $230 million deal, multiple owners (including Baltimore’s Steve Bisciotti) said it was an unfortunate precedent that would make future QB deals more difficult. The “difficulty” is that owners didn’t want to be on the hook for that much guaranteed money.
In March, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith wrote: “Let’s be clear, in my nearly 15-year career as Executive Director, I have never witnessed teams being so quick to publicly announce their lack of interest in an MVP quarterback, who is in his prime and who is also going to get an injury guarantee, regardless of his contract.”
Through Year 1, Lamar Jackson has been worth the money. He’s had his biggest performances in the biggest games. He’s limited mistakes and helped elevate the Ravens to wins. He’s again at the fore of the NFL’s best rushing attack, even though the team has lost two talented running backs to injury. His biggest criticisms are about playoff performance, and he’s in position to answer them with the AFC’s No. 1 seed, a mere two wins away from the Super Bowl.
It would be an understandable time for Jackson to crow from the rooftops that he was undervalued by a number of NFL teams, or perhaps the league itself. Yet he remains pragmatic, largely unwilling to speculate on the offseason drama (back in May, Jackson said, “I really didn’t care for other teams.”).
The hardest part to believe is that not everyone seems to have learned the lesson. At a Monday press conference after Smith’s firing, a reporter asked Blank if he regretted not pursuing Jackson. Acknowledging that Jackson has had a brilliant season, Blank still said no, believing that the Ravens would have matched the offer sheet. He added even if the Falcons had gotten Jackson, his massive contract “would have kept us from actually building that team that we wanted to build.”
So instead, the Falcons went with Ridder, and built a team that missed the playoffs. Great strategy. Maybe we should be able to fire owners.
For now, there’s what’s on the surface: Many of the teams that said they didn’t need Jackson are now cleaning house again — not to mention looking for their Next Great Quarterback after letting one get away.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Jimmy Garoppolo’s surname.