It took a little longer than expected after the Indianapolis Colts had to try again, but every NFL head-coaching vacancy is now filled.
The theme of this season’s new coaching hires was no retreads. Five of the seven new coaches haven’t been head coaches in the NFL before. Pat Shurmur was an NFL head coach before and didn’t do well with the Cleveland Browns, but that can be excused because nobody does well with the Browns. Jon Gruden finally came out of the booth and has a Super Bowl ring, so that’s not your typical uninspired retread hire either.
Call it the Sean McVay effect. The Los Angeles Rams took a shot on a young first-time head coach and it worked out gloriously. The Rams won the NFC West and McVay won coach of the year. That might cause teams to take more chances in the hiring process for the foreseeable future. Also, Doug Pederson was a first-time head coach when the Philadelphia Eagles hired him two years ago, and that worked out pretty well.
None of this year’s hires seem bad (though it’s hard to say many, except one, seem great), but let’s grade the seven coaching hires that took place this offseason.
Arizona Cardinals: Steve Wilks
Wilks might be the toughest hire to get a read on. He was defensive coordinator for only one season with the Carolina Panthers, though he did a good job with that unit. He had 12 seasons as an assistant and is highly regarded around the league. He spent the last three seasons as Ron Rivera’s assistant head coach, and Rivera is one of the best coaches in the game.
Wilks’ hire of Mike McCoy as his offensive coordinator is curious, considering McCoy was fired during last season by the Denver Broncos. It’s not like we know a lot about most of the new coaches, but Wilks is a bit of a mystery. Grade: C
Chicago Bears: Matt Nagy
Nagy also has just one season as an offensive coordinator. He does have things in common with the two most successful recent coaching hires. He comes from the noted Andy Reid coaching tree and had a short stint as Chiefs offensive coordinator, like Pederson. He is fairly young (39 years old) and brought creative wrinkles to the Chiefs offense, so in those ways he fits the McVay mold. His hire of former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich as offensive coordinator showed that Nagy will bring new ideas to the job.
Nagy is still pretty raw, in terms of experience, so he’s a mystery too. But the track record of Reid’s assistants gives him a little bit of a bump. Grade: B-minus
Detroit Lions: Matt Patricia
The Bill Belichick tree hasn’t been too successful, but Patricia will try to turn that around. There hasn’t been a successful head coach to come out of New England since Belichick got there. Patricia is well versed in the Patriot Way, having been there since 2004. It’s also the only NFL team he has ever been with. Ideally you’d like to see a new head coach draw on ideas from multiple successful coaches, but if you’re going to be an assistant for just one coach, Belichick is a good one.
It has been said often that Patricia is a rocket scientist, and clearly he’s a sharp guy. We’ll know soon enough if his success running the Patriots defense was due to Belichick or he has his own chops. Watching the Patriots defense get out-coached in Super Bowl LII won’t create extra optimism among Detroit fans, but we’ll see. Grade: C
Indianapolis Colts: Frank Reich
As long as Reich is Colts coach, he and Josh McDaniels will be tied together. McDaniels turned down the job, and less than a week later Indianapolis had settled on the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and longtime Buffalo Bills backup quarterback. It might end up being a net win.
If McDaniels wasn’t committed to the Colts job, they’re better off without him. Reich didn’t call plays for the Eagles, but Pederson didn’t call plays for the Chiefs and turned out OK. Reich deserves a share of credit for how well the Eagles offense improved through last season, before and after Carson Wentz’s injury. If Reich takes some of the aggressive ideas from Pederson and uses them with the Colts, Indianapolis might look back on McDaniels’ decision as the best thing that happened to them. Given the challenge after McDaniels left them out to dry, the Colts did well to grab Reich. Grade: B
New York Giants: Pat Shurmur
Shurmur’s 9-23 record with the Browns in 2011-12 can’t be ignored, but we can excuse it because it came with the Browns. They’re 15-65 since firing Shurmur, so it’s not like the failures there were all his fault.
Shurmur quickly rehabilitated his career, first as offensive coordinator of the Eagles, then as coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. He did a great job in both spots. He turned Nick Foles into a Pro Bowler in 2013, long before Foles shocked the world by becoming a Super Bowl MVP, then guided the Vikings to a great season despite losing quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook early in the season. There is some question if he can be a good head coach or is just a great play-caller, but it’s a solid hire. Grade: B
Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden
Two things need to be addressed right away. First, Gruden’s contract doesn’t matter, unless you’re Raiders owner Mark Davis’ accountant. The Raiders had to pay big to get Gruden out of the ESPN booth. His 10-year, $100 million deal doesn’t count against the salary cap, presumably won’t preclude the Raiders from signing players and Davis understands the fallout if it doesn’t work out. The only person the deal affects is Davis and his bank account. Too much attention is paid to what Gruden is getting paid. Second, this hire might not work out. Gruden’s last playoff win was Super Bowl XXXVII, 16 years ago. His final six seasons with the Buccaneers produced a 45-51 record. Gruden hasn’t coached since 2008. He has been in the game as a commentator, but it’s not the same as coaching. There are reasons to be wary.
All that said, the Raiders couldn’t have done better. Gruden was the white whale of coaching searches for years, for good reason. He was highly successful with the Raiders and Buccaneers. He has a Super Bowl ring, and you won’t find another available coach who can say that. Gruden re-energizes the Raiders after a bad season, he should be good for Derek Carr’s development, and he’s a perfect face of the franchise for their eventual move to Las Vegas. We don’t know how it will turn out, but this was a heck of a hire. Grade: A
Tennessee Titans: Mike Vrabel
Vrabel is better known to football fans than Wilks or Nagy because he played 14 years in the NFL, eight with the Patriots. But coaching wise, he’s the greenest of the lot. Vrabel spent three seasons as a position coach at Ohio State, three seasons as a linebackers coach with the Houston Texans and one season as defensive coordinator with the Texans. Then he became a head coach.
Vrabel’s reputation as a player clearly put him on a faster track to a head-coaching job. And he quickly earned respect around the NFL as a coach. He’s considered a good leader, and that will come in handy. His coordinator hires, grabbing young Matt LaFleur from the Rams as his offensive coordinator and getting former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees out of a very quick retirement, seem to be strong. Still, just five years ago Vrabel was a very young coach, coaching the defensive line at Ohio State. It’s a gamble that being around Belichick as a player speeds up the learning curve, but it seems like a bit of a risky projection for the Titans. Grade: C-minus
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