The 2018 offseason brought seven new head coaches into the NFL. Well, five brand new ones and a pair of retreads. They combined to go 0-7 in the first week of season — a new, ignominious NFL record.
Jon Gruden and Pat Shurmur have both returned to the sidelines this fall with varying degrees of fanfare. Gruden’s 2003 Super Bowl title and constant presence during NFL broadcasts made him a popular “what if” candidate for needy teams across the pro and college landscapes. Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis was able to turn that hypothetical into a reality for a market-bending $100 million contract. Gruden was thrust back into the spotlight in his very first game — a return to Monday Night Football, but this time on the sideline and not in the booth.
While Gruden and Shurmur may be the most recognizable of the new coaches, they’re flanked by a handful of rising minds who built their reputations as some of the best assistants in the game. Matt Patricia won a pair of Super Bowls as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. Now he’s been tasked with leading the Lions to relevance. Steve Wilks’ reward for turning the Panthers back into a playoff team was a shot at running the Cardinals. Mike Vrabel needed just four years as an NFL assistant to convince the Titans he’s the right man for Tennessee.
The first week of the season is in the books, casting a dreary cloud over 2018’s crop of new coaches. But which of these sideline generals found the brightest silver lining in their gray skies? And who could be primed for success in Week 2 and beyond?
Jon Gruden, Raiders
Gruden’s impact in Oakland was felt long before his team took the field Monday night. The Raiders have undergone a major effort to distance themselves from last year’s 6-10 team — and some talented players have been casualties of that purge. No absence has been more conspicuous than Khalil Mack’s. The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was shipped to Chicago (along with, somehow, a second round pick) this preseason for a pair of Bears first rounders, a third rounder, and a sixth-round pick. And while Mack was busy wrecking the Packers for two quarters, his former teammates followed a similar plan of post-halftime silence, giving up 23 second half points in a 33-10 loss to the Rams.
The Raiders looked better than their spread-covering defeat would suggest. Oakland trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter when a 32-yard catch-and-run from Jared Cook threw Gruden’s team into LA territory, but a Derek Carr interception on the very next play scuttled any hopes of a comeback. But the Raiders’ weaknesses in two areas Gruden played a direct role in molding — wide receiver and pass rush — were glaring. Oakland’s wideouts had only seven receptions on Monday, and its defense recorded only a single sack on 34 Jared Goff dropbacks. Concerns about his roster management bore fruit in Week 1.
Matt Nagy, Bears
Nagy looked brilliant as his Bears took a 17-0 halftime lead over the Packers at Lambeau Field. His offense was clicking, second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky looked confident, and Green Bay was on the ropes after losing Aaron Rodgers to what appeared to be a serious knee injury.
And then Rodgers returned for the second half and Chicago crumbled like a cabin with graham cracker walls. Nagy’s dominant first half defense had no answer for Rodgers. Its offense sputtered as Trubisky struggled to make throws downfield or spot open receivers. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, one of the league’s most electric tailback platoons, somehow only got 20 total carries in a game where the Bears led for nearly 50 minutes.
The good news is Nagy still has a talented young core with a generational pass rusher in Khalil Mack. The bad news is Trubisky is still going to need some time and a long runway to make the leap from “intriguing young athlete” to “franchise QB.” Nagy’s job for the next 16 weeks is to clear the space he needs to take off.
Matt Patricia, Lions
Listening to the home crowd chant “J-E-T-S, JETS!” by halftime isn’t the most rewarding start for a rookie head coach. Patricia is the first coach since Tom Cable with the Raiders in 2008 to lose his debut by 31 points or more.
For a branch carefully pruned from the Belichick tree and replanted in the mineral-laden soil of Detroit, Patricia’s Lions looked like they were expecting a scrimmage session. Matthew Stafford threw four interceptions. His backup, Matt Cassel, threw one of his own. The running game, which got hyped all offseason as a much improved unit ready to do its part, somehow failed to reach the low bar set by its predecessors.
The Jets knew which plays the Lions were going to run as soon as Detroit lined up.
The defense, Patricia’s specialty, struggled with its most basic responsibility, tackling. They weren’t any better at covering people. They lost their best (only) pass rusher, Ezekiel Ansah, to an injury. After that, it was smooth sailing in a worry free pocket for Jets rookie QB Sam Darnold.
“We’ve got to coach this a lot better than what we did,” Patricia said after the game. “We’ve got to go out and execute a lot better on the field. It’s a team game, and it starts with me.”
The Lions have a road trip to play the 49ers next week, and then they’ll host the Patriots. Patricia could be looking at an 0-3 start to his coaching career ... welcome to Detroit!
Frank Reich, Colts
The Colts’ second choice to lead phase two of the Andrew Luck era made good use of his stud quarterback Sunday. Reich threw his franchise player’s surgically-repaired shoulder right into the fire, dialing up 53 passes while his team coughed up a 13-point third-quarter lead to a middling Bengals squad. A subpar running attack — typical starter Marlon Mack was sidelined, leaving Jordan Wilkins, Nyheim Hines, and Christine Michael to fill the gaps — limited the amount of clock-grinding runs he could call, forcing a pass-heavy offense that worked in spurts but also gave Cincinnati the latitude to make a double-digit comeback.
A key mental error helped, too. Reich abandoned his post on a second-and-goal play that left the Indianapolis defense with too many men on the field. That penalty gave the Bengals new hope after a key short-yardage stuff. Two snaps later, Joe Mixon crashed into the end zone to give Cincinnati a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
On the plus side, Reich is owning his mistake.
“I didn’t see the substitution, and I’ll learn from that,” Reich said Monday. “Gotta keep my eyes on the drive the whole time it’s going.”
Pat Shurmur, Giants
Shurmur rebuilt his reputation after an extremely Browns-y stint as a head coach in Cleveland. The offensive guru was fired by the Browns in 2013, then became the architect behind career-best performances for Sam Bradford and Case Keenum as a coordinator with the Eagles and Vikings .That track record led him to New York, where the Giants are counting on him to rebuild a team coming off a franchise-worst 3-13 record last fall.
His New York debut didn’t come with a win, but his rebuilding club still managed to put a scare into the 2017 AFC finalists Jac. The Giants trailed by five with the ball in Jacksonville territory at the two minute warning before a turnover on downs ended their comeback bid.
His debut saw New York push the 2017 AFC finalists to the limit. The Giants had driven into Jacksonville Jaguars territory trailing by five with under two minutes to play before a turnover on downs squelched their comeback chances. That’s not quite a moral victory — the Jaguars were without Leonard Fournette for much of the game and Blake Bortles had a very Blake Bortles performance — the 20-15 defeat still looks like a step in the right direction.
The bigger concern is the play of Eli Manning. Shurmur’s quarterback whispering didn’t take in his first game with the two-time Super Bowl champion. Manning failed to find the end zone and needed 37 passes to throw for 224 yards on Sunday, leaving his offense stuck in neutral — albeit against one of the league’s toughest defenses.
Mike Vrabel, Titans
The key to Vrabel’s first year in Nashville will be getting the Marcus Mariota who looked like a budding star his first two seasons in the league and not the player who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2017. On Sunday, he saw the latter in a marathon game that will be replayed in full in sports bars throughout Hell for the rest of eternity. Mariota was awful (9-16, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) and then he was hurt, rewarding fans who stuck out all seven hours of Sunday’s game with a liberal helping of Blaine Gabbert dropbacks.
Vrabel shot through the NFL’s coaching ranks thanks to his background as a higher-profile player, working primarily on defense and special teams along the way. In order to be successful with the Titans, he’s going to have to unlock the franchise’s offensive potential. But his debut wasn’t exactly promising when it came to getting stops, either. Tennessee allowed a returning Ryan Tannehill to throw for more than eight yards per pass and sacked him just once in 29 dropbacks. A 35-year-old Frank Gore torched the club for nearly seven yards per carry.
A thunderstorm-marred, massively-delayed game can explain away some of that weirdness. But Vrabel can’t afford a similarly messy performance in Week 2 if he’s going to stake the Titans as an AFC South contender in 2018.
Steve Wilks, Cardinals
The Cardinals are not going to be very good this season. That’s been clear since the end of last season; there’s just too much rebuilding to do here. The key for a rookie head coach is how they navigate a season like that, save some face and give fans a few rays of hope for next year.
Maybe next week.
The Cardinals lost 24-6 at home to Washington. Fans booed. And Wilks understood why.
“You know what? It was well deserved,” Wilks said Monday. “They come there, they support us, they pay their money and they want to see a good product, and we didn’t put a good product on the field yesterday.”
Arizona boasted one of the NFL’s better run defenses last year, but you wouldn’t have known that Sunday when they made Adrian Peterson look young-ish again — 96 rushing yards and a touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, David Johnson is supposed to be that bright spot for fans to cling to, but Wilks and Co. failed to get him more than 70 total yards. Worse, they gave up running the ball completely once Washington got an early lead.
What may ultimately make or break Wilks’ debut season, however, is what he does at quarterback. Sticking with Sam Bradford isn’t going to do him any favors. The rich man’s Josh McCown had a 153 passing yards on 34 attempts and an interception. Expect Josh Rosen questions in 3 ... 2 ...