The 2018 NFL season saw one quarter of the league move on from its entrenched head coaches. Now, in 2019, a new wave of sideline generals are ready to make their mark on the league — and it’ll be a heady brew of young, emerging minds and reliable old standbys.
Bruce Arians called off his retirement after a single year to mentor Jameis Winston with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kliff Kingsbury made the jump to Cardinals head coach without spending a minute as an NFL assistant. Vic Fangio is getting his first shot at a head coaching position at age 60, more than three decades after taking his first NFL assistant job. Freddie Kitchens had never ranked higher than “quarterbacks coach” on an NFL coaching tree before 2018, and now he’s the Browns’ sideline general.
It will take years to figure out who got 2019 right (mostly — the Cardinals only needed one season to determine they’d seen enough from 2018 hire Steve Wilks), but that doesn’t mean some decisions make more sense than others in the face of an evolving NFL. So which teams look the smartest with their head coaching choices? And who is taking on the biggest risk in hopes of a turnaround?
Let’s dole out some snap judgments and way-too-early grades for 2019’s hirings so far:
Arizona Cardinals: hired USC offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury
The most surprising hiring of 2019 came when Arizona replaced Wilks with a coach who’d been fired by Texas Tech less than two months earlier. Kingsbury emerged as a potential candidate not long after being hired at USC, and wound up making the jump from the college ranks to the NFL — where he hasn’t been seen on a sideline since a training camp stint as a Bills backup quarterback in 2006 — despite the university’s best efforts.
Kingsbury’s success with future NFL quarterbacks at a lower tier Power 5 outpost like Texas Tech was enough to supersede that lack of pro experience. He turned Patrick Mahomes from a three-star quarterback to a top 10 draft pick, made Davis Webb a third-round choice, and even spent a year with Baker Mayfield — though that ended with Mayfield famously transferring to Oklahoma. His Texas Tech offenses ranked third, ninth, first, second, and fifth in passing yards per game among FBS programs in his five years on the job.
Arizona is hoping that mastery will help Josh Rosen live up to the potential that made him the 10th overall pick of the 2018 draft. Rosen was a disaster as a rookie, but he wasn’t exactly surrounded by talent. Kingsbury and a cast of dynamic playmakers will give him the tools he needs to succeed, though the Cardinals will have to bring in a potent defensive mind to look after the other side of the ball. Arizona ranked 26th in the league in points allowed this past season, but holding this year’s No. 1 overall pick should help fix that.
Grade: C+. There’s no denying Kingsbury’s success with passing offenses ... but that was at Texas Tech. The Cardinals are trying to jump the line in order to find the next Sean McVay, and hiring Kingsbury is a gamble.
It could pay off in a big way. While Kingsbury may have only gone 35-40 with the Red Raiders, he was trapped in a recruiting heat sink in Lubbock, Texas, that limited the caliber of player he could slide onto his depth chart. He’ll have more weapons to use than ever before in Arizona. Will he be talented enough to cobble them into a playoff contender, or will he just be the Cards’ next failed head coach?
Cleveland Browns: hired interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens
Kitchens only has two months of coordinator experience at any level, college or pro, under his belt. But what a two months they were. Over the course of eight games, he turned Baker Mayfield from a first-year project to an offensive rookie of the year frontrunner — and the difference between Mayfield’s output under Kitchens and former OC Todd Haley is stark.
Baker Mayfield before and after Hue Jackson’s firing
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Kitchens’ stock soared as the league trended toward relatively inexperienced offensive minds in the mold of Sean McVay and Matt Nagy. Rather than face losing the man who helped guide the team to its best eight-game stretch since 2007, the Browns made him their head coach. Now they’ve got to hope he can keep their offense rolling while finding the right coordinator to unlock the budding potential of their defense.
Grade: A-. The Browns saw what worked and stuck with it. Kitchens doesn’t have a wealth of experience, but he proved he’s capable of turning Mayfield into a franchise quarterback over the span of just eight games as a rookie. This was a smart, common sense hire for Cleveland that may blow up in its face anyway because of the Browns of it all.
Denver Broncos: hired Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio
While the rest of the NFL zigged, John Elway zagged, turning away from the league’s trend of promoting young offensive-minded assistants to instead turn his team over to a 60-year-old defensive coordinator. Vic Fangio has spent 19 of the last 20 years as an NFL DC, with the only break coming in 2010 when he commanded Stanford’s defense (the Cardinal allowed just 323 yards per game that fall).
Hiring a touted defensive mind makes sense, especially for a team in the AFC West. Fangio will pit his defense against the dynamic scoring of the Chiefs and Chargers four times per season, and it’s clear Denver was in no position to consistently out-score their rivals. Bringing the architect of Chicago’s dominant defense into the fold sends a message; the Broncos are going to drag their opponents down into the muck and try to out-slop them in low-scoring affairs.
Fangio is a respected assistant finally getting his shot at the top job. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to build the Broncos back into a top-five defense, especially with the high-impact pass rushing duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb (26.5 sacks, 47 QB hits in 2018) bookending his linebacking corps. His mission now will be to translate the techniques that made his Bears’ 2018’s top-ranked defense into Denver’s scheme — which will probably need him to add some extra help in the middle of his defense.
His bigger problem will be leveling up an offense that has only ranked among the league’s top 15 scorers three times since 2005 — and all three came with Peyton Manning behind center. Adding Case Keenum as a free agent has yet to pan out for the Broncos, and while a beat-up offensive line and undrafted free agent tailback Phillip Lindsay overachieved, Denver still scored fewer than 21 points per game.
Grade: B. Elway’s playing to his strengths, and Fangio’s ability to build the league’s top-ranked defense around Khalil Mack is the type of plan that should translate around Von Miller and the rest of the Denver defense. Fangio is a safe hire, but the success of his tenure may depend on whether or not he’ll be able to turn whomever is taking snaps at Mile High Stadium into even a league average quarterback.
Green Bay Packers: hired Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur
Green Bay turned to a Great Lakes native to replace Mike McCarthy, snagging former Saginaw Valley State quarterback LaFleur after one underwhelming season as the Titans’ offensive coordinator. The rising star didn’t do much for Tennessee on paper — the club scored fewer points and won fewer total games with him in the fold than it did in 2017 — but there were signs of life contained within that helped convince the Packers that LaFleur was their man.
Despite alternating between a hurt Marcus Mariota and a very Blaine Gabbert-y Blaine Gabbert and dealing with a Week 1 season-ending injury to 2017 leading receiver Delanie Walker, LaFleur was able to up the Titans’ offensive efficiency (from 5.2 yards per play to 5.3). His schemes turned Derrick Henry into a late-season beast (585 yards, seven touchdowns in his final four games) and turned Mariota into a dynamic runner in a season where shoulder and elbow injuries shredded his passing accuracy.
The latter half is what will either make or break his tenure in Wisconsin. LaFleur’s penchant for run-pass options made him a trendy pick, and his ties to Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan’s coaching trees give him a background pushing both veteran and emerging young passers into stars. He was the Falcons quarterbacks coach in 2015 and 2016, a run that ended with Matt Ryan leveling all the way up to league MVP. He was McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2017, and while he didn’t call his team’s plays, he still helped turn Jared Goff from replacement level player as a rookie to one of the league’s top passers.
That’s the experience the Packers are counting on after a relatively underwhelming season from Aaron Rodgers. The two-time MVP suffered from a lack of targets, and the result was the lowest touchdown rate of his pro career as well as his lowest Total Quarterback Rating. Turning him back into an All-Pro will be LaFleur’s prime directive — and a modest bounceback from one of the league’s top passers could make the 39-year-old head coach look brilliant in his first year on the sideline.
Grade: C+. LaFleur looks like a boom-or-bust hire, a candidate with a background developing quarterbacks and engineering wide-open offensives, but without much of a track record on which to fall back. The good news for him is that Rodgers gives him one hell of a learning curve. The bad news is any struggle will shave another year off Rodgers’ rapidly closing window of contention. LaFleur may have worked his way up to one of the NFL’s softest landing spots, but that also means he’ll be under scrutiny if he can’t win immediately in Green Bay.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: hired former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians
Arians’ retirement lasted 370 days before the chance to coach Jameis Winston — a passer he’d mentored when Winston was just a bright-eyed 12-year-old at a southern football camp — dragged him back into the world of press conferences and tape study. He’s already gone on record telling Rich Eisen he plans to build around the former No. 1 overall pick, even if the 25-year-old quarterback only has one year remaining on his contract.
Rolling with Winston makes sense given a lack of better immediate options in the draft or free agency, but it’s a risky proposition none the less. Arians will have to rein in a QB who is entirely inconsistent on the field — he managed to tie for the league lead in interceptions seven weeks into the season despite playing in only four games — and a constant victim of his own terrible judgment off it.
Arians will also have to build up one of the league’s worst defenses to get the Bucs back on track, though that’s an area where he’s had success in the past. Tampa Bay rated out among the league’s top six defenses (in terms of yards allowed) four times in his five-year tenure with the Cardinals. He’s even got his defensive coordinator from 2013-14, Todd Bowles back to run things on that side of the ball.
Grade: B+. Hiring Arians means he’ll either sink or swim based on Winston’s performance. The fifth-year quarterback closed out 2018 on a hot streak, but his volatile game could leave the Buccaneers stuck in limbo. Hiring Bowles was a nice touch, and it’s easy to see this team making major strides in 2019. The question is whether Arians and Bowles can transform an up-and-down roster into an actual contender, especially in the crocodile skin-tough NFC South.
New York Jets: hired former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase
The Dolphins hired Gase in 2016 the last time “hot young offensive minds” were all the rage in coaching hires. They wanted him to turn Ryan Tannehill into a true franchise quarterback. Three seasons later, the team fired Gase and is expected to finally move on from Tannehill.
The Jets are hiring Gase because 1) “hot young offensive mind” and 2) to develop quarterback Sam Darnold. Sounds familiar. It’s gotta work this time, right? Right?
The good news for Gase and the Jets is that Darnold just finished his rookie season and showed moments of promise during the campaign. In other words, this isn’t quite as impossible of a task as making Ryan Tannehill elite. But that’s only one thing on Gase’s to-do list.
He’s also being asked to turn a team mired in perpetual chaos into a contender. The Dolphins expected him to do the same thing, in the same kind of dysfunctional environment. Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has a poor track record of personnel decision in his four seasons on the job. So there’s not much for the new coach to work with. This looks like a situation where the Jets will be blowing it all up again in 2-3 seasons.
Grade: D. Maybe Gase will be fine, but we haven’t seen anything from his track record as a head coach to think he will. His biggest accomplishment so far has been pulling Jay Cutler out of retirement in 2017 to lead a 6-10 team. Gase also didn’t have much support from his players when the end came in Miami either. That’s never a good sign for a coach’s career. He got wrapped up and/or consumed by the organizational disarray in Miami, so it’s folly to think he can overcome or be a part of the solution in New York.
Cincinnati Bengals: plan to hire Rams QBs coach Zac Taylor
Zac Taylor is not Marvin Lewis. Zac Taylor is not Hue Jackson. Those two points alone at least give this not-yet-official hire a passing grade.
Taylor, a 35-year-old disciple of the even-younger Sean McVay, has never been a head coach in the NFL or in college football. But he’s fresh blood for a franchise that could use it. After 16 seasons of Lewis (and no playoff wins), the Bengals didn’t need another in-house hire. They needed someone from the outside who could help usher the Bengals into the second half of this decade.
In his two years with the Rams, Taylor has earned his reputation as an up-and-coming coach. This year, Taylor helped guide Jared Goff to the best season of his career so far. Last year as the Rams’ wide receivers coach, he took a group of question marks — including then-rookie Cooper Kupp and free agent additions Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods — and developed them into reliable weapons for Goff.
Taylor may be a question mark himself, but he could end up being the kind of innovative mind the Bengals have needed for years.
Grade: C+. Taylor’s highest position in the NFL was an interim OC for the Dolphins in 2015. So this is a pretty big leap for him — and for the Bengals. Maybe it’ll work out. Maybe it won’t. But the Bengals are trying something new, and we’re here for it.
Miami Dolphins: plan to hire Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores
Flores has spent his entire coaching career in New England, starting in 2004 as a scouting assistant and graduating all the way up to the team’s defensive coordinator role in 2018 — though, officially, he’s just the club’s linebackers coach. The former Boston College linebacker has played a key role in elevating talented players in Foxborough, turning unwanted players like Kyle Van Noy and JC Jackson into above-average starters and pushing Stephon Gilmore to his All-Pro potential.
While Flores has 15 years of experience on the sideline, he’s only spent one as a play-caller. And though he helped get the most out of undrafted rookies like Jackson and Adam Butler as well as veterans like Van Noy and Jason McCourty, his overall profile as a defensive coach isn’t exactly brimming with accomplishment.
Flores’ Patriots struggled against the run, giving up 4.9 yards per carry — the 29th-best mark in the league. That’s bad news for Miami, who clocked in at 26th last fall. And while his unit was tough in the red zone and solid when it came to snuffing out scoring opportunities, New England still gave up more yards than the Dolphins should be comfortable with.
Still, Flores is a transplant from a winning culture who has done a little bit of everything in a 15-year career, even if his resume as a coordinator is wafer thin. He’ll have his work cut out for him in Miami, where his first task will be deciding what to do with Ryan Tannehill and the franchise’s revolving door of underwhelming quarterbacks.
Grade: C-. Maybe this is the Bill Belichick assistant that thrives with a change of scenery, but Flores’ resume fails to paint him as a breakout candidate. Patriots’ assistants have famously struggled when promoted to the next level — the most successful branch from Belichick’s coaching tree is Bill O’Brien, who is 1-3 in the playoffs and has only beaten a Connor Cook-led Raiders team in the postseason.
Flores took a very similar path to a head coaching position as Matt Patricia did with the Lions — and after one season, that’s not looking like much more than a C- hire either.