Al Holcomb

Panthers Activate QB Sam Darnold

The Panthers have added another name to the mix regarding their fluid quarterback situation. The team announced on Monday that Sam Darnold has been activated from IR. This will be their second activation of the year.

Carolina had until this Wednesday to make the move. If not, Darnold would have been ineligible to return this season. Interim head coach Steve Wilks‘ comments on the matter left the situation somewhat murky, but it comes as little surprise that Darnold will be available moving forward after his return to practice.

The 25-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason, leading to the expectation of a prolonged absence to begin the campaign. That opened the door to offseason trade acquisition Baker Mayfield having an even firmer grip on the starting QB job in the opening weeks of the season, but he struggled mightily before suffering the same injury himself. P.J. Walker took over the No. 1 role for the next three games.

His level of play left Mayfield on the bench despite retuning to health, until halftime of yesterday’s blowout loss to the Bengals. Walker had guided one of the worst offensive performances through two quarters in franchise history, leading Wilks to replace him with Mayfield for the remainder of the game. That move left the starting spot wide open in advance of Carolina’s upcoming Thursday night game against the Falcons. Darnold – who, like Mayfield, is a pending free agent – will now factor into the team’s plans in the coming days.

In other Panthers news, more changes have been made along the team’s coaching staff. Cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper and defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni were fired today, as detailed by ESPN’s David Newton. Cooper had been one of several assistants with ties to Matt Rhule, and his job description included a scouting role. He will be jointly replaced by defensive staffer Bobby Maffei and interim defensive coordinator Al Holcomb. Pasqualoni, 73, has five years of DC experience in the NFL; this was his first season in Carolina. Don Johnson and assistant d-line coach Terrance Knighton will occupy his vacated role.

These moves come less than one month after Rhule and DC Phil Snow were fired, of course, as the turnover in the organization continues. With a new configuration on the sidelines, and, potentially, another new face under center, the 2-7 Panthers will host the Falcons to begin Week 10 as they hope to rebound from yesterday’s loss.

Latest On Panthers Coaching Staff

The Panthers organization will have an important decision to make when it comes to replacing Matt Rhule, but the team is more than happy with their current arrangement. Steve Wilks took on the role of interim HC, and Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post writes that this was always the team’s plan if things didn’t work out with their now-former head coach.

[RELATED: Panthers Fire Matt Rhule; Steve Wilks Named Interim HC]

The Panthers convinced Wilks to step away from his defensive coordinator gig at Missouri to be their defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach. The team made this hiring as a contingency in case they had to move on from Rhule; Wilks was still highly regarded within the organization thanks to his previous stint with the Panthers, and ownership was more than happy to hand him the reigns. Per La Canfora, Wilks will get a legitimate chance to keep the head coaching gig beyond this season.

While Panthers owner David Tepper is more than willing to make a big splash on the sideline, sources tell La Canfora that Sean Payton is not a realistic target. Those sources don’t believe Payton would mesh with Tepper, and the organization’s lack of draft picks and a foundational QB means a quick rebuild is unlikely. Plus, one GM told La Canfora that the Saints would prefer to trade Payton to an AFC squad, and it’s especially unlikely they trade him within the division.

Elsewhere on the coaching staff, Al Holcomb will take over as the defensive play caller. The 51-year-old coach was originally hired as Carolina’s defensive run game coordinator. He’ll replace defensive coordinator Phil Snow, who was fired alongside Rhule. Wilks told Joseph Person of The Athletic that it was his decision to move on from Snow, and Person later wrote that the interim HC had some “philosophical differences” with the DC.

“It was my call and my decision,” Wilks said. “I just felt like I wanted a different approach moving forward … The schemes aren’t gonna change much,” he added. “But I think you have to be creative in the process of what you’re doing. And everything is predicated on who we’re playing.”

Panthers Fire DC Phil Snow

The Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule earlier today, but he wasn’t the only member of the team’s staff to receive his walking papers. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has also been let go, reports NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport (Twitter link). 

The 66-year-old has been a longtime lieutenant of Rhule’s. The pair worked together at Temple and Baylor from 2013-19, making it little surprise that they were both hired by the Panthers in 2020. That move marked only the second NFL gig for Snow, who spent four years on the Lions’ sidelines from 2005-08.

During his two full seasons in Carolina, Snow was tasked with overseeing a defense which added a plethora of young pieces. In the 2020 draft, the Panthers notably used each of their selections on defense, a class led by defensive tackle Derrick Brown. That year, the team ranked 18th in the league in both points and yards allowed. Significant improvement was seen last season, as Carolina climbed to second in terms of yardage.

That shifted attention to the offensive side of the ball with respect to improvements in 2022. The Panthers’ inability to find sustained success in the passing game in particular stressed Snow’s unit even more than usual, leading to below-averaging rankings across the board. As a result, Snow will join Rhule in seeking new employment. The same is also true of special teams assistant Ed Foley, who likewise has ties to Rhule (Twitter link via Joe Person of The Athletic).

In the aftermath of Rhule’s dismissal, some wondered if interim HC Steve Wilks would assume defensive play-calling duties. Instead, it appears that responsibility will be given to Al Holcomb, Rapoport tweets. The 51-year-old spent five seasons as the Panther’s linebackers coach before following Wilks to Arizona in 2018. That tandem lasted just one season in the desert, as the team finished with a 3-13 record. Now, though, they will have the opportunity to resume their respective roles as they look to right the ship in Charlotte.

Extra Points: Patriots, Texans, Caserio, Panthers, Holcomb, Broncos, Chubb, Steelers, Dupree

The Patriots have a big offseason ahead of them. Obviously there’s still the Tom Brady situation to work out, but there are some important behind the scenes decisions that need to be made as well. The front office is in a bit of limbo, as two prominent execs in Nick Caserio and Monti Ossenfort are both on expiring contracts that run out in May. The Texans originally tried to hire Caserio as their GM last year, which resulted in tampering charges. There’s now a good chance that both Caserio and Ossenfort move on from the Pats before the 2020 season, per Albert Breer of SI.com.

Even though we just heard recently that the Texans weren’t going to hire a GM and would continue with Bill O’Brien running the show, Breer writes that the “Texans would find a way to hire him as GM” if Caserio wanted to work in Houston. If Caserio and Ossenfort both leave, Breer writes that the Patriots would likely promote Dave Ziegler. It was rumored that Josh McDaniels might’ve wanted to take Ziegler with him had he landed the head coaching job in Cleveland.

Here’s more from around the league:

  • Al Holcomb is back in Carolina. The Panthers have hired Holcomb to be their run game coordinator, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link). Holcomb was linebackers coach under Ron Rivera in Carolina for five years from 2013-17, so this is a homecoming for him. He spent last year as the Browns’ run game coordinator, and found himself in need of a new job after Freddie Kitchens got bounced from Cleveland. He had previously served as defensive coordinator with the Cardinals under Steve Wilks in 2018. He was a grad assistant at Temple back in the day, which could explain his connection to new Panthers coach Matt Rhule, who was previously the head coach at Temple.
  • Broncos pass-rusher Bradley Chubb showed a lot of promise as a rookie, racking up 12 sacks in 2018. Unfortunately his sophomore campaign was cut short, as he tore an ACL in Denver’s fourth game. On the bright side his recovery seems to be going well, and GM John Elway recently said that he should be ready for OTAs in a few months, per Ryan O’Halloran of the Denver Post. Chubb was the fifth overall pick out of N.C. State two years ago.
  • The Steelers are likely to place the franchise tag on impending free agent outside linebacker Bud Dupree, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While Pittsburgh very much wants to retain him for 2020, Dulac writes that the team is unlikely to pursue a longterm extension with Dupree because the “money is being earmarked for a big contract” for fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the near future. Dupree was drafted in the first round back in 2015, and his career got off to a rocky start. He’s since become more reliable though, starting at least 15 games in each of the past three years. He had his best year as a pro this past season, when he started all 16 games and racked up 11.5 sacks. Amusingly, Steelers president Art Rooney II said the Le’Veon Bell debacle isn’t going to impact how they use the tag moving forward. “I don’t think that affects the way we think about franchise tags or anything at this point,” Rooney said. “We had one, I’ll call it unusual experience, and I think it was that — an unusual experience.

Browns Hire Ex-Cardinals DC Al Holcomb

The Browns have hired former Cardinals defensive coordinator Al Holcomb as run game coordinator/linebackers coach, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL.com (Twitter link).

Cleveland hired ex-Arizona head coach Steve Wilks as its new defensive coordinator earlier this week, so it’s no surprise to see Holcomb follow him to the Browns’ staff. Wilks and Holcomb’s history together dates back to 2013, when Wilks served as the Panthers’ assistant head coach/defensive back while Holcomb was Carolina’s linebackers coach. Holcomb continued to work under Wilks when he was promoted to the Panthers’ DC role in 2017, and followed him to the desert last season.

In Cleveland, Holcomb will helm a linebacker group that’s high on talent but lacked results last season, at least in the run game. While the Browns ranked 11th in Football Outsiders‘ adjusted line yards (meaning their defensive line was productive), the club finished next-to-last in second level yards, an indication that opposing running backs weren’t being tackled by Cleveland’s ‘backers. Joe Schobert, notably, tied for third among all defenders in missed tackles in 2018, but ranked second among linebackers in Pro Football Focus‘ pass coverage grades.

The Browns will also add Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi to their staff as defensive line coach, tweets Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports. Lupoi — who’d been with the Crimson Tide since 2014 — led a number of future NFLers at Alabama, but this will mark his first coaching gig in the pro ranks.

AFC Coaching Notes: Browns, Bengals, Bills

Freddie Kitchens‘ first Browns staff has some big names, and it will include a high-profile coach from north of the border. Sascatchewan Roughriders head coach Chris Jones will step down from that post and join the Browns’ defensive staff, according to CFL News (Twitter link). Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com confirmed (via Twitter) Jones will trek to Cleveland with the title of “senior defensive specialist.” An NFL out clause existed in Jones’ Roughriders contract. Jones has been part of four Grey Cup-winning staffs, including a 2015 championship as head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos. He was also a graduate assistant under Gene Stallings at Alabama in 1997, when Kitchens was a Crimson Tide quarterback. Jones was the Roughriders’ coach for three seasons, completing two winning campaigns in his final two years there. He will join a Browns staff that now features coordinators Steve Wilks and Todd Monken.

More out of Cleveland and the latest from the AFC side of the coaching carousel:

  • The Browns also may be on the verge of reuniting Wilks and Al Holcomb, the Cardinals’ 2018 DC and former Panthers linebackers coach. Holcomb will interview for an unspecified role with the Browns on Wednesday, Joe Person of The Athletic notes (on Twitter). Multiple teams covet Holcomb, per Person. This marks the first known interview for Holcomb, who’s worked with Wilks for the past six seasons.
  • Ed Donatell and the Broncos are close on a deal that would bring the longtime Vic Fangio coworker to Denver as defensive coordinator, Dan Graziano of ESPN.com tweets. This deal figures to get done soon, with Mike Klis of 9News suggesting (via Twitter) this could be more of a formality. The Bears are trying to retain Donatell to coach their defensive backs, after giving Chuck Pagano Fangio’s old job, Klis adds. But with Donatell interviewing for a DC role — a job title he has not held in 11 years — with Fangio, it points to the Bears losing another key defensive staffer.
  • The Bills interviewed veteran offensive line coach Joe Philbin recently but will instead name Bobby Johnson as their new O-line coach, Adam Caplan of Sirius XM reports (on Twitter). This will be Johnson’s second stint in Buffalo, the first coming under Chan Gailey. Johnson’s last role in Buffalo was assistant O-line coach. In 2018, he served in that role under since-jettisoned Colts offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo. Johnson will relocate quickly. DeGuglielmo remains unattached.
  • A higher-profile Buffalo staff vacancy will be filled as well. The Bills are hiring former Panthers assistant Heath Farwell to run their special teams, Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer tweets. The 10-year NFL veteran served as an assistant ST coach with Seattle and Carolina, his Panthers tenure coming after Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott had already departed for Buffalo.
  • After Paul Alexander‘s 20-plus-year run as Bengals offensive line coach, the franchise will soon have three O-line instructors in three years. Frank Pollack is out after one season, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Pollack was previously the Cowboys’ O-line coach, and under his stewardship, the Bengals made the biggest single-season improvement in yards per carry in franchise history. Cincinnati rushers collectively averaged 4.69 yards per carry last season.

Cardinals To Fire Byron Leftwich, Al Holcomb

Byron Leftwich stayed on from the Bruce Arians regime but will not be sticking around with the Cardinals with a third coaching staff.

The Cardinals fired both Leftwich, their interim OC, and DC Al Holcomb, Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com tweets. While Leftwich was viewed as a rising talent with Arians, and ascended to OC in merely his second season as a full-time coach this year under Steve Wilks, but was not expected to be back had Wilks kept his interim job, Albert Breer of SI.com reports (on Twitter).

Both firings could have been expected, with the Cardinals completing a 3-13 season and making a head coach a one-and-done for the first time in more than 60 years. Holcomb came over with Wilks from Carolina, having served as a position coach there. This marked his first season as an NFL DC.

Leftwich became a full-time coach last year and was named quarterbacks coach this offseason. After Mike McCoy‘s in-season ouster, Leftwich rose to Arizona’s OC job. He will now be on the market to continue his coaching career. Under both McCoy and Leftwich, the Cards featured a historically bad offense. They ranked last in both points and total yards this season.

 

West Notes: Smith, Cardinals, Broncos

During an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show, Alex Smith fielded questions about his future with the Chiefs. The 14th-year quarterback wishes he had more control in this process. He could well be traded for the second time in his career.

I wish I knew,” Smith said about his future (video link). “I’ve got a year under contract there in Kansas City. I wish I was in control of this thing. I wish I was the one who got to do this. That’s just not the reality. … I love where I’m at. I feel like we underachieved. Offensively, last year, I felt we did some awesome things. Who knows? I’ve been through this before, the trade deal. A lot of crazy stuff can happen.”

The conversation pivoted to the Browns, a proposition that has been mentioned recently. A team that has lost 31 of its past 32 games does not sound like an ideal place to go for a veteran quarterback that’s been to the playoffs four times in the past five years, and Smith seemed to confirm as such during his interview.

I haven’t even thought about that,” Smith said about a Cleveland trade. “They’ve got nowhere to go but up. One and 31 over the past two years just sounds amazing. If that’s the case and you’re going somewhere, yeah, you want to go somewhere where you have a chance to have success.”

The soon-to-be 34-year-old passer has one year left on his Chiefs contract, and it seems likely Kansas City (as of now projected to be $9MM-plus over the 2018 cap) will pull the trigger on a deal.

Here’s more from the West divisions.

  • Steve Wilks will not be calling plays and running the Cardinals‘ game-day operations this season, with Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com (on Twitter) revealing new DC Al Holcomb will call plays. This will be new territory for Holcomb, the Panthers’ linebackers coach the past five years.
  • The Cardinals’ running backs coach during Emmitt Smith‘s farewell season in 2004, Kirby Wilson is close to a deal to return to the desert. Alex Marvez of the Sporting News reports Wilson interviewed for the job and is considered a strong candidate to again fill that role. Wilson coached Arizona’s backs from 2004-06 before moving on. He spent the past two seasons as the Browns’ run-game coordinator. Wilson’s coached seven teams’ running backs, dating back to 1997. One of Wilson’s stops was in Minnesota, where he oversaw Adrian Peterson‘s third rushing championship season in 2015.
  • If the Broncos are going to pursue Kirk Cousins and what could be a record contract, they might have to part ways with one of their Pro Bowl wide receivers because of cap considerations, Mike Klis of 9News writes. While noting it would be a surprise if John Elway parts ways with both, Klis writes one could be jettisoned. The Broncos, though, have experienced consistent issues finding supporting-cast wideouts; everything has funneled through Thomas and Sanders since 2015. And Denver’s revolving door at quarterback has contributed to the 30-year-olds’ statistical regression. The Broncos must decide between Feb. 10 and March 14 if they want to pick up the $4MM option that buys back the final two years of Thomas’ deal, which calls for a $12.1MM cap hit in 2018. Cutting Sanders ($10.94MM 2018 cap number), though, would cost $5.375MM in dead money.

Cardinals Hire Al Holcomb As DC

The Cardinals have officially hired former Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb as their new defensive coordinator, according to Mike Garafolo of NFL.com (Twitter link). The addition was widely expected after Arizona hired former Panthers DC Steve Wilks as their head coach earlier this week.Al Holcomb (Vertical)

Holcomb spent the past five seasons coaching under Wilks in Carolina, and led one of the best linebacking units in the league during that time. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson are among the NFL’s premier linebackers, and Holcomb also coached ex-Panthers backup A.J. Klein, who landed a significant deal with the Saints last offseason.

In Arizona, Holcomb will take over a defense that ranked fourth in DVOA under former coordinator James Bettcher (notably, three spots higher than the Panthers). The Cardinals ranked fourth against the pass, but were even better against the run, as they ranked first overall in run defense DVOA. Stars such as Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu will now work under Holcomb’s leadership.

The Cardinals are still searching for an offensive coordinator, and the search is expected to come down to former Vikings OC Darrell Bevell or former Broncos OC Mike McCoy.

Cardinals Expected To Hire Panthers’ Al Holcomb

New Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks is quickly working to get his coaching staff in place, and he’s apparently looking at one of his former staffers with the Panthers to help lead his defense. Panthers linebacker coach Al Holcomb seems primed to follow Wilks to Arizona to become the team’s next defensive coordinator, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (Twitter link).

Al Holcomb (Vertical)

The team will move on from former Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher after he was passed over for the head coaching job. This opens up an opportunity for Wilks to bring in someone that he’s familiar with to help translate the success he had in Carolina to the desert.

Holcomb has spent five seasons primarily coaching the Panthers linebackers. He’s worked with Wilks every year since he was hired by the Panthers back in 2013. Under Holcomb’s guidance, the Panthers have formed one of the best inside linebacker combos in the league with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. It’s unsurprising that Wilks would bring over a familiar face, especially on the defensive side of the ball, with the Panthers finishing as the seventh best total defense in the league last season.