While the 49ers and Chiefs are getting prepared to play in the Super Bowl in two weeks, the other 30 NFL teams are forced to look ahead to next season. For five teams (Redskins, Cowboys, Panthers, Giants, and Browns), that meant finding a new head coach, as each didn’t have the success this season that they hoped to have. Hiring a head coach is a tricky process, as not only does it often require an overhaul of the coaching staff, but also an identity change as well. Going based off of the order of when they were hired, we’ll analyze each of these teams’ coaching hires, basing them off of the three key skills a head coach must have: culture-creating, staff-building, and in-game decision making.
December 30th: Redskins Hire Ron Rivera
Culture Creator: A
Staff Building: B+
In-Game Decision Making: C
Overall Grade: A-
The Redskins were the first team in the market for a head coach after firing Jay Gruden after five weeks, and it was clear that owner Dan Synder wanted to make a splash hire. That’s exactly what he is accomplishing by hiring Ron Rivera, who is a perfect fit in Washington. The 58-year-old is an exceptional leader, is very demanding, and will overhaul a culture that had become lackadaisical and in a way, cancerous. He’s a players’ coach, and given how poorly some players were treated by previous regimes (Trent Williams with Bruce Allen), that’s a nice shift. As for Rivera’s coordinator hires, Scott Turner will be the offensive coordinator, while Jack Del Rio will be the defensive coordinator. Turner was excellent as the quarterbacks coach in Carolina, helping Cam Newton be more efficient, and is a major proponent for passing on early downs and utilizing the middle of the field. Therefore, he should be a positive presence for second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who limited turnover-worthy plays last season, but also didn’t generate many big plays through the air. As for the 56-year-old Del Rio, he’s another coach who will hold players accountable and has head-coaching experience, and better yet, has a successful track record with defenses. Washington’s defense underperformed greatly last season, but by putting his players in a better position to succeed (not having edge players in coverage) and switching to a 4-3 base scheme, they should be much better as a unit next season; their defensive line, which could be adding Ohio State’s Chase Young in the draft, will be very deep. Now, Rivera isn’t a very analytically-inclined head coach, which played a role in his breakup in Carolina, but nevertheless, he also has shown some curiosity for it, and over time, he should be able to learn the modern aspects of football. What can’t be taught is the leadership skills that he possesses, and because of that, he’s the right man to lead the Redskins into 2020 and beyond.
January 6th: Cowboys Hire Mike McCarthy
Culture Creator: B
Staff Building: B+
In-Game Decision Making: B+
Overall Grade: B
After parting ways with long-time head coach Jason Garrett, there were some expectations that the Cowboys may try to go the college-route with their next head coach. Instead, they did the opposite, opting for former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy, 58, coached in Green Bay for 12 seasons, won a Super Bowl, and led a sustainable winner despite not receiving much support from the front office. He’s a pass-heavy offensive-mind, which is favorable in today’s game, and after utilizing isolation routes too much, he worked hard in his year off to find ways to innovate his offense. Now, that doesn’t mean he’ll be an offensive wizard, as even his answers in his press conference regarding the offense were inconsistent, but it may not matter- offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was retained and will call plays. The 31-year-old Moore oversaw one of the league’s most explosive offenses last season, and also led quarterback Dak Prescott to arguably his best season; it would’ve been foolish to move on. As for his defensive coordinator, Saints linebacker coach Mike Nolan will take over, and although he has a mixed track record, runs a lot of the same coverage schemes that the Cowboys have run in the past- there shouldn’t be too harsh of an adjustment. Meanwhile, special teams has been an issue for Dallas in the past, so landing former Rams special team coordinator John Fassel was huge, and the defensive line should benefit greatly under the coaching of Jim Tomsula. As for his in-game decision making, it’s impossible to tell how aggressive McCarthy will be after the year-off, but he was already somewhat aggressive in Green Bay, and after collaborating with Pro Football Focus, he has all the tools necessary to make changes to his approach. In the end, this is a really safe hire for the Cowboys, but for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, it’s understandable; McCarthy has experience working for a famous franchise, after all. We’ll see how McCarthy fares in Dallas, but nevertheless, he’s an obvious upgrade over Garrett.
January 7th: Panthers Hire Matt Rhule
Culture Creator: A
Staff Building: A-
In-Game Decision Making: B
Overall Grade: A
The Panthers, after moving on from head coach Ron Rivera after Week 13, were always an underrated landing spot for a head coach- they present the stability with a new owner in David Tepper, who is very analytically-driven, that other franchises couldn’t. Therefore, it’s not a huge surprise that they were the winner of the Matt Rhule sweepstakes; they gave the former Baylor head coach a seven-year contract worth over $60 million. At 44-years-old, Rhule is the perfect age to be a head coach, as he can both relate to his players and command the locker room. Better yet, he’s one of the better culture builders of recent memory, as he overhauled the football programs at Temple and Baylor; he has experience with a long rebuild, which is what the Panthers are heading into. If you watched one minute of his opening press conference, it’s clear that he’s not faking these skills at all, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be very successful in motivating players over a 16-game stretch. The icing on the cake for Carolina had to be the hiring of Joe Brady as offensive coordinator, which is unexpected, to say the least. After all, the 30-year-old Brady overhauled an unstoppable LSU offense, implementing a lot of principles with the Saints’ current offense with more air-raid characteristics and run-pass options- he’s a superstar in the making. The hiring of the 64-year-old Phil Snow as a defensive coordinator is a little harder to judge, as he has little NFL experience, but he did hold his own in the Big-12 at Baylor working with Rhule, and the two have a partnership that extends back several years; he’s also a nice veteran mentor for a rather young coaching staff. Heck, Rhule’s even investing in a sports science program, which speaks to how critical it is for him to develop an unmatched culture in Carolina. This could be a turning point for the franchise, as with Luke Keuchly retired and Cam Newton not likely to be back, they’re turning the page on a new era, which is definitely for the best.
January 7th: Giants Hire Joe Judge
Culture Creator: B+
Staff Building: C
In-Game Decision Making: C+
Overall Grade: C+
In every hiring cycle, there’s one coaching hire that catches the public by surprise. This year, that honor goes to the New York Giants, who hired Patriots special teams coordinator and wide receiver coach Joe Judge to be their next head coach. The 38-year-old wasn’t regarded as a serious head-coaching candidate by the media, which vouched for Rhule, but just about an hour after Rhule went to Carolina, New York moved quickly to announce Judge as their next head coach, replacing the recently-fired Pat Shurmur. Considering that he’s worked with Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, it’s safe to say that Judge has to the mentorship and experience necessary to be a head coach. Similar to those two head coaches, it’s likely that he tries to establish a blue-collar, “no-nonsense” type of culture, which he alluded to in his press conference. Now, it’s worth noting that he wouldn’t be the first Belichick disciple to try to establish that, and many have failed, but based on how openly Belichick has advocated for him, Judge probably is more well-equipped than his other former coordinators were. Now, for the concerning parts of Judge’s fit as a head coach- his staff-building and unclear stance on analytics. His two coordinator hires (Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator and Patrick Graham as defensive coordinator) are questionable, to say the least. Although Dallas’ offense reached new heights in 2019, that says much more about Moore than Garrett, and still the Cowboys overall were at times very inefficient on early downs; Garrett is a supporter of running the ball on early downs. That could put Daniel Jones in some tough positions on third and long, and based on his erratic decision making and fumbling problems, could spell disaster. As for Graham, the former Dolphins defensive coordinator, who has history working in New England, as well as with the Giants and Packers, he’ll likely try to establish a Patriots-style multiple scheme in New York, which is always a risk; Miami’s defense did progress throughout the season, so this is more of a risky hire than a bad one. As for analytics, Judge hasn’t specifically advocated for or against analytics, but a lot of the principles he’s wanted to value (running the ball, for example) align with general manager Dave Gettleman’s old-school philosophies, which have really put the team in a poor position. In my opinion, this hire was made because Gettleman and ownership were too concerned with bringing in a coach that would either be too expensive or command too much power (Rhule was a perfect fit). Although I believe Judge is a positive leader, I’m not sure he’s an upgrade to Shurmur, who did a great job with developing Jones this season. Only time will tell if he can follow in Belichick’s and Saban’s path, but for now, I remain very skeptical of this franchise’s direction.
January 12th: Browns Hire Kevin Stefanski
Culture Creator: B+
Staff Building: B-
In-Game Decision Making: A-
Overall Grade: B+
After last year’s disastrous season in which the team crumbled under head coach Freddie Kitchens, the Browns made monumental changes, parting ways with both Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey. Consequently, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, who has an analytics background, was tasked with finding the team’s new head coach. After an extensive search, he settled on the candidate he wanted Cleveland to hire last year- Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski has worked in several capacities in Minnesota for the last 14 years, but this season, he got his chance to be an offensive coordinator. Though he may have had the help of Gary Kubiak, who advised the offense, he established himself as one of the game’s top playmakers, elevating an offense with a lackluster offensive line and a quarterback that needs help in Kirk Cousins. Ironically, a lot of the same tools are in place with the Browns’ current personnel: a solid quarterback (Baker Mayfield), two great receivers (Odell Beckahm Jr. and Jarvis Landry), a high-end running back (Nick Chubb), and a pretty weak offensive line. Unlike Kitchens, Stefanski should be able to maximize on that personnel and hide its weaknesses, and in that way, he’s well qualified to develop Mayfield. Right now, it appears he won’t be hiring an offensive coordinator, which I’m not particularly a fan of considering the adjustment period that takes place for a first-time head coach, but I’m a fan of his defensive coordinator target- 49ers secondary coach Joe Woods. Not only has San Francisco’s secondary exceeded expectations, but their cover-three scheme is a solid fit with the Browns’ current defensive players, and he also has 14 years of NFL coaching experience. However, what makes me most excited about Stefanski is his leadership skills, as well as his openness to analytics. A major reason that Browns coaches have failed in the past is that they didn’t align with an analytics-heavy front office, and for once, the organization should have proper collaboration; he’ll also likely be able to pick the new general manager, which has a long track record of working. Even better, Stefanski is a no-nonsense leader who can command a locker room that was constantly causing drama last year, and he should be able to put his players in an excellent position to succeed with his understanding of analytics; his run-heavy philosophies were likely due in large part to the wishes of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. Stefanski is mostly an unknown, and he faces a daunting task ahead, but offensive coaches always will have a lot of value, and he displays all the qualities necessary to run a team; sure, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Salah would’ve been a nice hire, but the Browns have tried that type of move before. Believe or not, but I’m actually in favor of a Browns head coach hire, which is a rare sight.
This is a very interesting mixture of head coaches. To put it in perspective, here are the five coaches hired:
A defensive coach who was just fired this year, but has an excellent track record
A college coach who transformed two programs
A former head coach who tried to revitalize himself with the help of outside resources
A former special team coached who has worked for Bill Belichick and Nick Saban
An offensive head coach who has worked on both sides of the ball, but has only been with one organization
None of these head coaching hires appear to be disastrous, but the one that appears most likely to backfire is Judge in New York, as he’s just a poor fit for what the Giants as an organization needed- significant change. As for the standout hires, Rhule and Rivera, in different ways, should dramatically overhaul the Panthers and Redskins, respectively; they are by far the best two coaching hires. As for McCarthy and Stefanski, I can see scenarios where they either fail or have a lot of success, but for all of these five coaches, only time will tell if they were the right hires or not. It’s always exciting to see teams change their identities both schematically and culturally, but now, the real work lies ahead- free agency and the draft provide these teams great opportunities to find players who align with their new head coach’s vision.