The NFL’s coaching carousel spun and spit out seven new head coaches for the 2018 season.
There were splashes, like the Raiders’ 10-year, $100 million hire of Jon Gruden. And there was drama, like the Colts hiring former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich less than a week after getting spurned by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who had already been announced as the new head coach.
A year ago, there were six new head coaches in the NFL. Two of them — Sean McVay of the Rams, and Doug Marrone of the Jaguars — led drastic turnarounds that ended with division titles. Another first-year head coach, Sean McDermott, got the Bills to the postseason for the first time in 18 years.
Which team will do a 180 next year and which rookie head coaches are doomed to be on the chopping block sooner rather than later?
Most likely to lead a quick turnaround: Jon Gruden, Raiders
The Oakland Raiders went from 12-4 in 2016 to a 6-10 mark in 2017. The drop off perhaps wasn’t too surprising, considering the Raiders were 8-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2016. But there’s one match here that matters more than others — and that’s between Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr.
Gruden has earned a reputation as a quarterback guru, between winning a Super Bowl in 2002 with Brad Johnson and his work with ESPN and his quarterback camp segments. Carr received a $125 million extension last offseason, and he was in the MVP conversation for a good chunk of the 2016 season before an injury ended his year. Carr struggled to regain his form in 2017, however.
Now Carr has the chance to be the best quarterback that Gruden’s ever had, which seems like a perfect storm for getting the Raiders back into the postseason. There’s work to be done on defense, but if DC Paul Guenther is able to do as well has he did in Cincinnati, the Raiders could immediately look better in 2018.
Best long-term future: Mike Vrabel, Titans
Vrabel is the fastest riser in this year’s crop of new head coaches. He only had one year of experience as the defensive coordinator of the Texans before the Titans tapped him to take over for Mike Mularkey. But ultimately, the 42-year-old players’ coach is in a good position for long-term success.
He inherits Marcus Mariota, who’s just 24, and a team that managed to make the playoffs this past season. After beating the Chiefs (who Vrabel once played for), the Titans then fell to another team Vrabel once played for, the Patriots.
Now the Titans want to build what the Patriots have, and who better to do that than a new head coach who spent eight seasons playing for Bill Belichick? They’ll have a full set of draft picks and just over $49 million in cap space to play with in free agency. As long as general manager Jon Robinson uses all of that capital wisely, Vrabel can succeed.
The safest hire: Matt Patricia, Lions
The Titans aren’t the only team trying to replicate the Patriot Way. Lions GM Bob Quinn, New England’s former director of player personnel, got his first chance to a hire a head coach and went after a Belichick disciple. Patricia had been the Patriots’ defensive coordinator since 2012, winning two Super Bowls and appearing in three.
Patricia can go into the Lions job focusing on what he does best: defense. He’s got a franchise quarterback that’s been paid his money (Matthew Stafford), leading an offense that finished 13th in the NFL. Sure, there’s room for improvement — big red arrow point to the running game — but with the NFL’s 27th-ranked defense in 2017, Patricia’s services could help balance an imbalanced team.
The Lions also retained Jim Bob Cooter as their offensive coordinator, which is good news because 1) he’s good and 2) he’s got the best name in the NFL. Patricia can take his lessons learned from the almighty Belichick, and perhaps help the Lions end their 26-year playoff win drought.
Most precarious position: Frank Reich, Colts
Reich’s success in Indianapolis will depend on one factor: whether Andrew Luck is healthy or not. Jacoby Brissett’s replacement-level quarterbacking helped doom an understaffed Colts team to a 4-12 record in 2017. With Luck’s shoulder still in question, there’s a chance Reich never gets to work with his team’s franchise player.
That leaves him staring upward at a difficult rebuild. Talented pieces like T.Y. Hilton and Malik Hooker are oases among a barren roster, and while the team has an estimated $72 million in cap space to spend this spring, luring big-name free agents to Indianapolis won’t be easy. There are several reasons why McDaniels turned down the Colts’ head coaching job, and while his ties to New England played a role, the team’s unpredictable future was also a major negative.
Most likely to toil in obscurity: Steve Wilks, Cardinals
The Bidwills aren’t quick with the hook, and it’s a good thing too, because this team needs a complete overhaul offensively. The Cardinals have to find a quarterback, a replacement for Larry Fitzgerald if he retires, and five new starting offensive linemen.
Arizona does have a good core in place defensively with players like Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathieu. However, that side of the ball needs plenty of help too, especially if Wilks switches over to a 4-3. But defensive-minded head coaches have a knack for coaxing a good performance out of those players, keeping their teams competitive while they undergo a rebuild.
Everyone else in the NFC West is miles ahead of where the Cardinals are, so being a tough out and a spoiler in the division race is their ceiling for a few seasons. But with Wilks’ patient owners, he will get a good three or four years to make the team a contender.
Until then, they’re just going to be one of those teams that shows up from time to time on Thursday nights and you think, “oh yeah, I forgot about the Cardinals.”
Most Sean McVayish: Matt Nagy, Bears
Staring down 40, Nagy is an old fart compared to McVay. But the Bears’ new head coach is inheriting a situation eerily similar to the one McVay found himself in a year ago.
Nagy, like McVay before he became a first-time head coach, was the OC for a top-five offense (Nagy for the Chiefs, McVay for Washington). And then they each took over a team whose offense was, well, the opposite of that. The comparisons don’t stop there. A high draft pick at quarterback coming off a rocky rookie year? Check. A low-scoring offense that has a strong foundation at running back but needs more targets for that young quarterback? Check check check. A defense that can get after it led by a well-respected coordinator? Cheeeeeeeck.
At least one of Nagy’s former players has sky-high expectations for him. “I think he could be Doug Pederson 2.0, to be honest, especially with the quarterback,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce told ChicagoBears.com.
It’s too soon to expect Nagy to live up to a Super Bowl-winning coach, and maybe he won’t win NFL Coach of the Year like McVay did, either. But with a little more development from Mitchell Trubisky and a few weapons to surround him with, the Bears might not be too far off from competing.
Most likely to be played by Reese Witherspoon in a rom com: Pat Shurmur, Giants
You gave this a go once before. You were young and tried to make it work with the biggest loser in the NFL. But it’s five years later. You’ve matured. You’ve gained valuable life and career experience. You’re a success — and you’re ready to try this again. In the big city, too!
It won’t be easy. Not with an aging quarterback and a roster that’s always primed to bring the D-R-A-M-A. And OK, maybe everyone is already questioning the moves you’re making.
You KNOW you can do it, though. You’ve earned this second chance. Sure, there will be bumps along the way, but you’ll get past them. You’ve learned your lessons. You’re confident. You’ve got more spunk than Mary Tyler Moore. You’re up for the challenge this time and you’re going to take on the world. Now enjoy this montage set to a peppy Betty Who song.