NFL head coaches have been heralded as unyielding field generals, as motivational visionaries, as draconian disciplinarians and as leaders of men (whatever that means).
These days it seems NFL head coaches have a more pedestrian identity: quarterback repairmen.
The latest batch of hires shows a clear trend away from instilling a culture and toward getting someone who can fix or sustain the franchise passer. In the past, most quarterbacks had to work within a coach’s system. Now the coaches must fit the quarterback.
Consider Tampa Bay, where former No. 1 draft pick Jameis Winston has caused more consternation than celebration since his arrival nearly four years ago. Because of a mix of off-field drama and on-field inertia, Winston has irritated many Bucs fans without getting the team to the playoffs once. Yet that has never stopped the Bucs from trying to amend everything around him. Lovie Smith was rushed out of One Buc Place when it seemed offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter could better lift Winston to his full potential. The results were lacking; Winston continued to wobble between promising and mistake-prone. Instead of jettisoning Winston, the Bucs dumped Koetter and brought in Bruce Arians, who has a long-time fondness for the passer dating back to when Winston attended one of his camps as a high schooler.
In an interview this week with the NFL Network, Arians said, “Everything is going to be built around him.” That’s nothing new in the 813, but the results are getting old. “We’ve got to put the right pieces around him,” Arians insisted.
But there have been plenty of pieces: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, Cameron Brate, and a solid offensive line. Those pieces put up historic numbers for Ryan Fitzpatrick when Winston was suspended. The bigger problem is on defense, which is painfully thin, especially in the secondary. Yet it’s Arians, who has coached offense since the 1970s, who will replace the offensive-minded Koetter. The message is still that Winston is the future, no matter what maintenance is required.
At least Arians has NFL head coaching experience — five seasons in Arizona.
The Cardinals just hired a college coach with a losing record to lead a worst-in-the-league team after one season under defense-first Steve Wilks. Kliff Kingsbury has worked with Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, which apparently gives him more credibility than a winning record would. In the past, Kingsbury would have been a candidate for an NFL quarterbacks coach or perhaps an offensive coordinator. That’s what USC indicated when it hired him. Now Kingsbury gets to run the whole show in the pros, in hopes that he can usher first-rounder Josh Rosen to greatness. If things go (further) south in the southwest, don’t expect Rosen to get the blame.
Cleveland had arguably the best situation of any team in need of a new coach. The Browns have emerging stars on offense and defense. In another era, perhaps a veteran whistle would be called upon to steady a growing team with several lively personalities. Instead, the team promoted offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens — who had gelled with Mayfield, their rookie QB — to his first top job. (Another name that bubbled up over the course of the season: Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who worked with Mayfield in Norman.) Kitchens has more than a decade of experience as an NFL position coach, but his only time as a coordinator came this season. Mayfield is off to a terrific start as a pro, but can Kitchens deliver a hard truth if it’s needed?
This trend even reaches legendary teams with legendary passers. The Packers are young on defense, yet the team replaced an offensive mind in Mike McCarthy with another one in Matt LaFleur. He has only two seasons as a coordinator, one with the Rams and one with the Titans, yet he’ll be Aaron Rodgers’ right-hand man.
The goal, as we all know, is to find the next Sean McVay — the wizard behind the Rams’ offense. He stepped into a head coaching role with ease, and the results were immediate. Jared Goff has looked far better and the No. 1 pick now looks like a wise choice. Of course McVay also has two of the best players alive in Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald. Those guys make any coach better. None of the McVay-alikes have this kind of talent.
Still, the almost-frantic search for a quarterback repairman goes on. Prior results are ignored or downplayed in the hopes of future performance. Take the comparison between two coaching candidates this cycle: Adam Gase and Jim Caldwell. In his three years with Miami, Gase was 23-25 with one playoff game and no playoff wins. His offenses were ranked 17th, 30th (with quarterback Ryan Tannehill hurt) and 20th. Caldwell was 36-28 in his four seasons in Detroit, with two playoff appearances and no wins. His offenses were ranked 22nd, 18th, 20th and then seventh in the league. So who is the offensive wizard? Apparently it’s Gase, even though Caldwell has two Super Bowl rings as an offensive coach. The Jets have chosen Gase to help second-year quarterback Sam Darnold find his full potential. There’s limited evidence that he will; he hasn’t had a top-20 offense since he left Peyton Manning in Denver.
The more subtle but just-as-important difference between Gase and Caldwell is the turbulence they faced at their last stop. Caldwell didn’t have much drama spilling into the local media during his time with the Lions; there wasn’t much if any obvious dissent even when the team lost. Gase had issues though, from the unceremonious exit of Jay Ajayi to the assistant coach seen on tape with a powdery substance in his office. The bottom line: first-time head coaches rarely have it easy, no matter how intelligent they are at play design. Gase surely learned some things he will apply in New York, but those rookie mistakes will be hard to avoid for Kingsbury, Kitchens and LaFleur.
This is the best part of the Arians hire in Tampa. He has only one playoff victory as a head coach, but he was an offensive coordinator in the NFL when Kingsbury was still a college quarterback. His way has worked, at least for three 10-plus-win years in Arizona from 2013-15. Bringing in Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator adds another layer of head coaching experience where it’s needed.
The question, as always in Tampa, is whether Winston will ever be a superstar. Will the new coach force the quarterback to change? Or will the limitations of the quarterback force the new coach to adapt? That’s the question in Arizona, New York, Cleveland and Green Bay, as well.
If the quarterback repairman can’t make the necessary fixes, what will allow him to keep his job? For first-time head coaches like Koetter and Gase, the answer was: nothing.
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