Grading the NFL head coach hires
We can say this about the recent NFL coaching cycle, which concluded with eight teams finding new leaders: It was not boring.
Chip Kelly’s flirtation with Oregon and the NFL captivated most people’s attention, but there also was a CFL-to-NFL jump (Marc Trestman), a surprise hire from the college ranks (Doug Marrone) and the move of a recently-fired coach to a new franchise (Andy Reid).
All that on top of several intriguing hires from the league’s coordinator pool (Mike McCoy, Bruce Arians, Gus Bradley and Rob Chudzinski).
Unlike in past seasons, none of the hires feel like disasters waiting to happen, either, even if some come with more question marks than others. Each new head coach has a very clear selling point — most relating to the offensive side of the football.
So, which teams made the best decisions? With the admission that it’s way too early to issue any definitive verdicts, we hand out some early grades:
Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
Whether you like or dislike Kelly, you’re kidding yourself if you do not see the potential of his offense stockpiled with the likes of LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
This was a move made more for Kelly’s proven program-building abilities and his football smarts than his use of an up-tempo attack. Kelly was noncommittal on Michael Vick’s future — a nod to the everything-on-the-table approach Kelly will take at QB. He’s said that he does not necessarily need a running quarterback to control his offense, so it will be intriguing to see where the Eagles go from here.
The Eagles’ full starting lineup, save for pending free agents Vick and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, could be back. That is a plus when you think of the team’s potential, but a bit scary given its consistent underachieving in the past couple seasons.
Could this backfire? Sure. Kelly could flop and greatly set back the NFL’s interest in college coaches. But this is a swing-for-the-fences hire … and Kelly is a smart enough coach to make it work.
Mike McCoy, San Diego Chargers
This hire strikes a lot of the same chords as Chicago’s addition of Marc Trestman (see below).
McCoy has a strong offensive pedigree, buoyed by success calling plays for both Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning in Denver, but it is fair to wonder if he will be able to push San Diego forward on both sides of the ball. Retaining defensive coordinator John Pagano ought to help — the Chargers’ D showed improvement under Pagano in 2012. That defensive unit could lose a host of players in free agency, though, most notably Quentin Jammer and Shaun Phillips.
McCoy and new GM Tom Telesco must find Philip Rivers some more reliable weapons and upgrade the Chargers’ offensive line. Assuming Rivers still has a few good years left in him, McCoy could spark big bounce-back year for the veteran QB.
Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Reid traded in one team with headaches at quarterback for another. Unfortunately for him, there is no candidate here with the upside of Michael Vick … or even of Nick Foles. The overly-pricy Matt Cassel appears headed out the door, so who will run the show in 2013?
Reid will call the Chiefs’ plays — which is both good and bad news, as frustrated Philadelphia fans (and LeSean McCoy fantasy owners) can attest — and he will have running back Jamaal Charles to lean on early. But wide receiver Dwayne Bowe could leave in free agency, as could starting left tackle Branden Albert.
Kansas City will stick with the 3-4 defense, which makes sense since OLBs Justin Houston and Tamba Hali thrived in that scheme and the team spent a 2012 first-round pick on NT Dontari Poe.
The No. 1 pick will give us some idea where Reid feels this team needs the most help. Is he the right guy for the rebuilding project, though?
Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars
Kudos to Bradley on landing a hard-earned head coaching job. This, however, is a dire situation. Bradley has inherited arguably the least-talented roster in the league, starting with QB Blaine Gabbert and trickling down to just about every position. Based on his work in Seattle, Bradley should give the Jaguars’ defense a fighting chance, even with cornerbacks Derek Cox and Rashean Mathis potentially headed out via free agency.
He will need help to kick-start the offense, however, whether Gabbert sticks as QB or not — Jedd Fisch, as the new offensive coordinator, has been tasked with turning around that unit. The saving grace may be RB Maurice Jones-Drew, if he can stay healthy.
This will take some time.
Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
The entire NFL has to respect the masterful job Arians did with the Colts in 2012, after stepping in as the interim coach while Chuck Pagano underwent leukemia treatment. The situation could have unraveled the young Indianapolis team; instead, Arians helped guide the franchise back to the playoffs.
The foundation is not nearly as stable in Arizona.
One thing is for sure: Andrew Luck won’t be walking through the desert door to save a team that started four different (and equally disappointing) quarterbacks throughout the season. The Cardinals’ offensive line was the worst in the NFL in 2012, and aside from Larry Fitzgerald, the talent level is mediocre. Arians brought Colts O-line coach Harold Goodwin along with him to be the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator, and somehow that duo must put this unit back together.
Despite their 11-5 mark, too, the Colts struggled defensively under Arians’ watch — he has no other NFL experience directing that side of the ball. With Ray Horton bouncing for Cleveland, the Cardinals will be starting over, to some extent, on that side of the ball as well.
Arians’ only previous head coaching experience came during a 21-45 stretch at Temple from 1983-88. This will be, at age 60, his first NFL head coaching job. Is he ready for it?
Marc Trestman, Chicago Bears
The shift from Lovie Smith’s defense-first approach to the offense-centric stylings of Trestman could pay big dividends for Jay Cutler. Trestman worked wonders as an NFL assistant on QBs less talented than Cutler (see: Mitchell, Scott), and his Montreal Alouettes lit up CFL scoreboards, too. Already, Trestman has said he’d like to take advantage of Cutler’s athleticism.
But will the defense suffer under Trestman’s watch? On top of Smith’s departure, the Bears also have 18 potential unrestricted free agents, including key defensive names like Brian Urlacher, Henry Melton and Israel Idonije. The Alouettes were up and down, defensively, with Trestman at the helm.
The hire of ex-Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mel Tucker might help, if only because Tucker favors a 4-3, Cover-2 look that will be similar to what Smith employed. Still, the Bears’ identity may be totally different going forward.
Rob Chudzinski, Cleveland Browns
Perhaps Chudzinski’s greatest advantage, as he embarks on his debut season as a head coach: the presences of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Horton.
The book will be out on Chudzinski’s head-coaching abilities for some time — and possibly even longer on Michael Lombardi’s tenure as the new GM — but the NFL world knows that Turner and Horton can call plays on offense and defense, respectively.
As for Chudzinski himself, this was another hire made with offense in mind. Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and the Browns’ young weapons could get a boost from Chudzinski, who did yeoman’s work during his time as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2007-08. Of course, the Panthers’ offense never quite hit its ceiling under Chudzinski, despite Cam Newton’s presence.
The Browns’ comfort level with Chudzinski pushed this move, even if there were flashier names out there.
Doug Marrone, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s best hire this offseason may not have been Marrone, but rather new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whom the Bills swiped from the Jets. The Bills have enough talent on that side of the ball to greatly improve the league’s 22nd-best defense, so that’s a nice starting point for Marrone.
Marrone did a fine job at Syracuse, and he comes back to the NFL, reportedly with Bill Parcells’ blessing. Still, there is reason to wonder if Marrone can hit the ground running, especially since the Bills are built to win now. This team could return close to 20 of its starters in 2013, assuming safety Jairus Byrd re-signs or gets the franchise tag.
To compete, though, Buffalo needs Marrone and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett (also Marrone’s O.C. at Syracuse) to fix Ryan Fitzpatrick.