After weeks of stagnation on the NFL coaching front, the floodgates are open and teams are shaping their visions for the future. A total of five openings are/were available in this cycle, with two teams (Carolina and Indianapolis) moving to rebuilding after mid-season firings and interim head coaches, while the Cardinals, Broncos and Texans elected to part ways with their head coaches immediately following the regular season.
It’s difficult to really pick a “best job” out of the bunch. The Texans offer the No. 1 overall pick and immense cap space, but also the biggest uphill climb to return to contention. The Broncos need someone who can bring Russell Wilson back to life, and every other focus is secondary to this. The Panthers and Colts have talent, but woefully lack quarterbacks — and the Cardinals, well, good luck to anyone trying to take over a team modeled after Kliff Kingsbury and trying to make it work.
Let’s break down every head coaching hire from 2023.
Jonathan Gannon becomes head coach of the Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are returning to defense after their Kliff Kingsbury experiment and settle on a coach who really hadn’t been getting much buzz until recently. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Jonathan Gannon, and there’s no doubt he vastly improved the Eagles defense in his role as defensive coordinator — but this still feels like one of the most questionable hires of the cycle.
Gannon only became a fully-fledged position coach in the league as recently as 2018, and which his ascent through coaching circles was quick, there isn’t necessarily a track record of sustained success. Obviously this move comes with the belief that the Cardinals offense is more or less set, so bolstering this defense is the last piece of the puzzle.
It will be critical that Gannon adds some experienced NFL minds around him in key coaching roles while he eases into being a head coach. Otherwise that youth and inexperience could be a problem.
Grading Shane Steichen to the Indianapolis Colts
Bullet dodged. This could have been an absolute disaster if Jim Irsay was insistent on running it back with Jeff Saturday, but instead the team gets one of the most promising young offensive minds in the NFL
It’s easy to look at the quarterbacks Steichen has worked with in Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts and assume he’s going to make the passing game his focal point, but Steichen’s offensive sensibilities skew far more towards establishing the run and building the pass off it. During his lone year as offensive coordinator of the Chargers in 2020 the team lifted its total carries from 28th in the NFL in 2019, to 9th a year later. Steichen loved using Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley as a means to make Herbert’s life easier, and it worked wonders.
Steichen did the same when he arrived in Philadelphia, as the team moved from 23rd in the league to rushing attempts, to an average of 2nd in the league during his two years. As a coach he loves to make life easier on quarterbacks, which is precisely what the Colts need if we’re to assume they draft a passer with their first round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
If Jonathan Taylor can stay healthy it makes for one hell of an attractive landing spot for a rookie QB. Throw in a stable veteran who can take the lumps for a year and Steichen should be able to get the Colts back to form quickly.
Love this hire.
Grading Sean Payton hire for Denver Broncos
The Broncos were far less concerned getting a football coach, and much more heavily invested in getting someone who could repair Russell Wilson. This is the approach Denver had to take, and Payton was really the only man for the job.
At this point the franchise has committed so much to Wilson, completely hitching their wagon on his ability to produce, that they were facing an extinction-level event for their chances to compete over the next 5-7 years. Payton might not work, but he’s the only guy who could give this team a chance.
The big question mark surrounding this plan is whether Wilson is prepared for what’s to come. Payton is notoriously demanding out of his quarterbacks, which is a good thing, but not every can respond to that pressure like Drew Brees or Tony Romo. Up to this point Russ has more or less been coddled by the coaching staffs around him, first with Pete Carroll, who takes a more passive approach to individual player development — and then with Nathanial Hackett, who clearly didn’t feel he had the reputation to challenge Wilson.
Furthermore, there’s cause to grimace when you think about what Payton likes to do offensively and pair that with Wilson’s skillset, because they don’t mesh at all — meaning there’s going to be some push-and-pull on offense too.
Doubts about this working shouldn’t be one-sided either. It remains to be seen whether Payton still had the magic. Lest we forget that for all the head coaching success he had with Brees in New Orleans, he was also adamant the team do everything in its power to keep Taysom Hill, a horrific move that hasn’t paid off.
Basically the Broncos are throwing a Hail Mary and hoping they’re able to catch it. It’s the only play left in the book for this situation. Not only are there questions about whether this experiment will work, but the team had to give up critical draft capital to sign Payton, meaning that he’s really going to have to roll with the roster as constructed.
Grading DeMeco Ryans hire for Houston Texans
Houston hired the best possible coach available on the market. I’m also very scared about what the Texans will do next. Both these things can be true at the same time.
DeMeco Ryans has been thriving as a defensive coach since he began with the 49ers in 2017. As San Francisco’s defensive architect in 2021 and 2022 he showed an unnatural understanding on defense not just of where the league was, but where it would be heading. A linebacker-focused scheme, it demands excellence from the defensive front, with below-average blitz help, while also asking the secondary not to expect aide from the linebackers. Meanwhile the linebackers themselves are required to be well-rounded at everything, and above all else: Smart. They have free reign to diagnose plays, and the trust to swarm wherever they think the play is going. It’s a special system if you have the personnel for it, or the ability to coach players up.
Ryans is destined to be a big deal. In 10 years time it feels like we’re going to be discussing the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree in vaunted, reverent terms as both Ryans and Mike McDaniel prove their brilliance year after year. Now it’s incumbent on Houston not to be absolute morons about this.
There’s something very unsettling about having a coach as promising as Ryans land somewhere as shambolic as Houston. A team with a recent history of hiring and firing Black coaches at an alarming rate, chewing up their careers and spitting them out. Both David Culley and Lovie Smith were made scapegoats for the team’s woes, fired after one season, and never given a chance to even develop the team — which we can hold in stark contrast to Gary Kubiak and Bill O’Brien, who given a combined 15 years of punctuated mediocrity.
That said, and I might regret this, I’m going to give Houston the benefit of the doubt. Ryans signed a six-year deal, one that signals commitment from the front office to give him time to build this team how he sees fit. Ryans also turned down other interviews, so obviously the pitch he was given sold him on going to Houston. Finally this team has draft capital for days, cap space forever, and if given the time this feels like the move that will really, truly turn Houston around.
Carolina Panthers: Frank Reich
In isolation this hire is fine. It’s unremarkable, even skewing more towards boring — but this team needed a steady hand after years of wasted stupidity under Matt Rhule, one of the worst head coaching hires in NFL history.
Rhule had complete control over the Panthers, a responsibility he neither earned, nor executed on. At the very least Reich knows how to win in the NFL, and has a far better understanding of how to work in lockstep with a general manager instead of dictating how the show should go.
Still, this was a low-effort move by the Panthers. It’s the definition of settling, made worse by the decision not to give interim coach Steve Wilks a chance, who brought the Panthers back from the brink of disaster and almost pushed them into the playoffs. Functionally neither Reich nor Wilks is an exciting move, but they both offer the same low-end stability — the only difference is Wilks had untapped potential we’ll never really know now.
At the end of the day the Panthers get drastically better with this hiring. Yes, it’s a high floor/low ceiling situation, but that might be enough. Carolina has a talented roster that just needs a quarterback to put it all together, and Reich is a solid hire to achieve that one specific goal — even if he might not be the kind of coach to get to the Super Bowl.