Thoughts on the recent NFL coaching changes
All in all, it was a pretty typical offseason as far as upheaval in the NFL head coaching ranks goes. Since the dust finally seems settled (only Atlanta’s head coaching job remains open, and it’s all but given that Seahawks DC Dan Quinn will immediately take it following the Super Bowl), I thought I’d look at all the moves made (and the moves not made) and offer my thoughts.
New York Jets
Though I like Rex Ryan as a head coach in general, I felt it was time for New York to move on from him. After six years, and nearly every major offensive component turning over at least once while Ryan was head coach– GMs, offensive coordinators, starting quarterbacks– the ultimate responsibility for failing to field an offense that could allow the team to compete is on him. (Chase Stuart of Football Perspective has a much more detailed account of Ryan’s flaws and the circumstances that demanded his firing.)
Todd Bowles has been a rising star in the coaching ranks after two years of maintaining the high standard of performance as Arizona’s defensive coordinator that was established when Ray Horton had the job. I think it’s a solid hire; I certainly prefer hiring a rising assistant to a known mediocrity.
I’m really intrigued by his hire of Chan Gailey as OC. While Gailey at first glance might seem like another face in a sea of retread coaches, he’s one of the more innovative faces there, having a history of developing unconventional offenses to maximize his talent at hand (most notably with Kansas City in 2008, when, left with only Tyler Thigpen at QB, he resorted to a spread attack similar to the one Thigpen ran at Coastal Carolina). That track record intrigues me, because it makes me think Gailey will do whatever is necessary to maximize his offensive talent and performance at QB– whether that QB is Geno Smith or someone else.
In one of the most unusual moves in head-coaching history, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract due to a clause, that as far as I know, has never been executed in NFL history: The “If the owner dies and the team is sold, I can opt out of my deal after two years” contract. Marrone opted out of his deal, and though he was rumored as a hot head-coaching candidate for the available jobs, particularly the Jets and Falcons, he ultimately took the job of offensive line coach and assistant head coach in Jacksonville, not exactly a lateral move.
Marrone’s failure to find another head-coaching job wasn’t a total surprise; rumbles from Buffalo were that he was significantly overrated and had little to do with the team’s success (he’s an offensive coach, which means he is responsible for the team’s stagnant offense the last two seasons, and the complete disaster of the E.J. Manuel selection and development). Rex Ryan seems like a solid hire, although his specialty– rushing the passer– is something the team already does well, and he won’t fix the offensive problems the team has had the last several years.
I’m not surprised by Mike Smith’s firing: despite opening his career with five straight playoff appearances, the team cratered in 2013 and 2014, and while injuries and a thin roster played a serious part, so did his absolute terror at fourth-down situations and his inexplicable time management. The Falcons became a bad team at about the same time Smith lost his aggression on fourth-down situations.
I don’t know much about Dan Quinn, but he’s the second defensive coordinator to be hired away from Seattle since 2013, and I think Gus Bradley is doing well despite a poor record for two seasons. Without more specific information on Quinn, I expect he’s a solid hire, especially for a team that already has the most important building blocks to an elite passing offense and needs help revitalizing the defense.
I have mixed opinions about John Fox, but ultimately I think John Elway made a gutsy move to fire him. While Fox has always brought a solid defense with him wherever he goes, he actually doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record– only three winning seasons in ten before Peyton Manning became his starting quarterback; he’s basically the non-scumbag Jeff Fisher– and his overly conservative approach to offense was holding the team back. We saw it two years ago in the playoffs, when Fox sat on the ball at the end of the first half and again at regulation, despite having timeouts and, you know, possibly the greatest quarterback of all time behind center. This year, Fox seemed to not prepare for the divisional playoff game at all: the offense was anemic and a defense that had finished fourth in the regular season was invisible. I’ve heard rumors that Fox is one of those guys that treats the playoffs as “just another game,” not introducing new wrinkles or opponent-specific concepts into his gameplans. I think any coach that does this is giving up significant win equity, and in that sense, I absolutely agree with Elway that Fox would keep the team from reaching the next level.
Unfortunately, Elway replaced Fox with Gary Kubiak, someone even more averse to scoring points and offensive aggression (even more bizarre since he’s an offensive coach), and someone whose offensive system of play-action rollouts and bootlegs isn’t well-suited to Manning. I am skeptical this will work, and it would be a real shame if Peyton Manning’s career ended with another playoff upset caused in part by a head coach holding him back.
I ranked Marc Trestman much higher in my coaching rankings last year for a few reasons: I believed he had a much better sense of creating a strong offense and playing to his team’s strengths (Lovie Smith and his offensive coordinators stubbornly clung to deep dropbacks with a poor offensive line, subpar receiving talent, and removing Matt Forte at the goal line), as well as a much better sense of in-game situational management.
Fast-forward a year and it seems he completely lost the locker room. Obviously a guy has to go when that happens; what I don’t understand is how that happened. Without a better idea of why, I can’t say what Trestman should have done differently or if he deserves another chance to be a head coach someday. He’s on to be the new offensive coordinator in Baltimore, replacing Gary Kubiak.
John Fox is the new man in Chicago. If he can fix the defense, he’s a good hire, but you just read my concerns about him, and it’s possible he makes the offense even worse and more inconsistent than it was in 2014.
Since the team dismissed Dennis Allen midseason and installed Tony Sparano as interim coach, a full-time replacement has been long in the making. I’m not sure why the team was so gung-ho about Jack Del Rio (and even more baffled that the team’s only apparent serious head coaching candidates were Del Rio and Sparano). Jokes about potentially dropping an axe on Khalil Mack’s foot aside, Del Rio has a 68-71 record as a head coach, with only two playoff appearances in nine seasons. The team looked at two mediocre retreads; I simply don’t understand the aversion to bringing in new blood, someone whose track record may be shorter but at least isn’t mediocre.
Del Rio’s first hire was Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator. Musgrave’s history of coordinating NFL offenses is, frankly, not good. However, he was Matt Ryan’s quarterback coach for his first three years in the league, and I suppose Del Rio has some hope he can develop Derek Carr in the same manner. Or maybe Del Rio is just hiring his old buddy from the 2003-04 Jaguars (team record: 14-18). Given that Del Rio’s head-coaching record screams “mediocre retread,” my first thought is that Musgrave falls into the same category.
(Yes, I used the phrase “mediocre retread” a lot. Get used to it. The NFL has Mediocre Retread Syndrome.)
San Francisco 49ers
Jim Tomsula may be an inspired head-coaching hire, but I strongly believe this was the culmination of a series of moves designed to compete long enough simply to secure a new stadium before returning to running the team on the cheap. Jed York should be embarrassed.
- Miami: I don’t know why the team retained Joe Philbin. Bill Lazor was a smart OC hire, and one of the biggest reasons the team improved, but Philbin still seems clueless and cowardly when it comes to in-game decisions.
Of course, the entire power structure in Miami is a mess, and the team just brought in Mike Tannenbaum for some reason, so I’ll continue to expect a certain level of dysfunction from the team as long as Stephen Ross owns it.
- Tennessee: This is the horrible team no one talks about. Ruston Webster has been embarrassingly bad at identifying talent (the guy brought you the Shonn Greene – Bishop Sankey two-headed backfield; need I say more?). Without Kurt Warner to carry him, Ken Whisenhunt has never shown anything as a head coach except a fascination for QBs with huge arms and horrible accuracy.
Bud Adams died (good riddance to the guy who robbed Houston of the Oilers franchise) and his son Tommy seems yet to have noticed how terrible his team is. I’d clean out everyone; Adams the Younger barely seems to have considered that option after a 2-14 season where the team was completely non-competitive outside of a bizarre fluke week 1 win.
- Washington: Jay Gruden doesn’t want to work with Robert Griffin. Jay Gruden should be fired, then. Quarterbacks with Griffin’s talent are rare, and if you’re a coach who refuses to maximize those talents, you are not doing your job and should be fired for cause.
Scot McCloughan is an inspired choice to head personnel, but who knows what actual power he’ll wield for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise? The most interesting thing about the Washington franchise is how deep Dan Snyder will dig in to embarrass himself over the team’s racist nickname.
- Tampa Bay: Hopefully Lovie Smith’s performance this year forever dispels the myth of “steady veteran leadership” at the head coaching position. I didn’t think it was possible for this team to be worse than it was under Greg Schiano last year, but, surprise!
The team is alarmingly bereft of talent and very few of their free-agent signings and draft picks have worked. (Really, the team should promote whoever’s in charge of wide receiver scouting to run things, because Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson have been the only clear successes.) Much like their South Beach counterparts, this team has a messy org chart and a certain level of dysfunction that seems to stem from the very top. (Jacksonville may well have the brightest future of the Florida teams.)