Coaching Hot Seats

Is it too early in the season to talk about firing coaches? Well, it’s already on my mind, and there are some coaches who clearly are already feeling the heat, so let’s jump right in.

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Head Coach Rankings in the 2015 Offseason

A couple of weeks ago, NFL.com released a list of head-coaching rankings that seemed to be sorted exclusively by career win totals, with little regard as to any aspect of the job of being a head coach, or as to how a particular coach is performing at the present time. That was enough to stir me out of my summer vacation and come up with my own list, based on who I’d want running my team if I was an owner or GM looking to hire.

I even ranked rookie coaches based on my early impressions of them. That will probably prove to be a terrible idea, but since I was able to rationalize those rankings, I don’t really care. (After all, I’d hire some of the unknowns before some of the knowns, so, why not?)

Tier 1: THA GAWD

1. Bill Belichick, New England

With apologies to Bomani Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, this seemed like the most accurate description of Bill Belichick. He’s the best gameplanner in NFL history and after a fourth Super Bowl win in six attempts has really left little doubt about his legacy.

 

Tier 2: Greatness

2. Sean Payton, New Orleans

Payton’s offensive innovations and forward thinking, and recognition of what an asset Drew Brees could be, have spearheaded the Saints’ decade of success. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have generally done an excellent job of adapting the roster and juggling it to fit the team needs. Given that the push to take the team over the top last year resulted in a 7-9 season, Payton was willing to completely revamp the team’s offensive outlook to stock some talent on defense. We’ll see if it works. Now if only he’d lose the stubborn fourth-down play-calling.

3. Pete Carroll, Seattle

Still remarkable to me that he’s managed to be so successful after two previously failed stops. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I won’t complain if you want to flip Payton and Carroll.

4. Chip Kelly, Philadelphia
5. Bruce Arians, Arizona

It’s remarkable that it took anyone so long to give Arians a head-coaching shot. I don’t know how he works his wonders, but he surely has for an Arizona team that has won double-digit games for consecutive years. Kelly is putting a lot on the line this year by taking personnel control, but like Arians, he’s led a team that had become moribund to consecutive double-digit wins and a playoff appearance. I have Kelly over Arians because I prize innovation, and what Kelly brings not only to offense but to the sports-science side of the game.

6. John Harbaugh, Baltimore

I don’t know much about Harbaugh, but his track record of keeping the Ravens consistently in contention, along with a Super Bowl win, speaks for itself.

 

Tier 3: Goodness (and Goodness Upside)

7. Bill O’Brien, Houston

It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was by the Texans’ turnaround after the Keystone Kops show the team devolved to in 2013. Without further information, I’m going to have to give the credit to O’Brien, especially considering he did it without anything worthwhile at QB and without the services of the #1 overall pick, or, for that matter, the services of most of the Texans’ 2013-14 draft classes. (He still should have banged the table to move up for Teddy Bridgewater, though.)

8. Mike Zimmer, Minnesota

The Vikings started 4-7 and won three of their last five, with the two losses each coming on the road and by only two points. I give Zimmer major credit for his leadership and his ability to turn around the defense and develop defenders; he gets high marks for what he’s done with Anthony Barr, and I expect him to prove he can develop other Vikings defensive draftees, like Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Scott Crichton, and Danielle Hunter. On offense, he deserves credit for, if nothing else, trusting in Norv Turner and Teddy Bridgewater.

9. Andy Reid, Kansas City

He’s always been a difficult one for me to project. On the one hand, he seems to be one of the few NFL coaches who can consistently give you a baseline of above-average play. On the other hand, he makes obvious in-game mistakes that give away a lot of equity. I’m reluctant to elevate him over Zimmer or O’Brien, because they haven’t proven they don’t get it when it comes to big in-game decisions, clock management, and the like, while Reid clearly has.

10. Dan Quinn, Atlanta
11. Todd Bowles, New York Jets

Quinn and Bowles are, of course, total guesses, but I like the work they’ve done as coordinators (unlike some coordinators who seem to rise to being head coaches simply based on name or tenure) and the things they’ve said about their approaches to team-building. All I can say is that, based on my current information, I’d take a chance on either of them before the guys below, whose records don’t inspire me as much. (I’m looking to win a title, not go 9-7 every year.)

12. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati

Like Andy Reid, only less so. (That is not a fat joke.)

 

Tier 4: Some goodness, not a detriment overall

13. Rex Ryan, Buffalo

Rex Ryan is what he is. To paraphrase Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart, that means you get a guy who’s really good at defense, who fires up and inspires loyalty in his players, but who also can’t put a working offense together to save his life, and whose teams completely fail to show up 2-4 games a year. What’s that worth? Hard to say. If Ryan could ever figure out that good defense and good offense are not mutually exclusive, maybe he would belong higher.

14. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis
15. Mike McCoy, San Diego

McCoy I regard positively given his rejuvenation of Philip Rivers and his surprise consecutive winning seasons (including a playoff win!), but unlike with, say, Arians or Kelly, I’m much less certain how much credit he gets compared to Rivers. This is also more or less where I stand with Pagano, given that Andrew Luck guarantees a certain level of play every year. (I have heard he’s gotten more out of the defensive talent than could reasonably be expected, but I’m not sure that’s true.)

16. Mike Pettine, Cleveland
17. Gus Bradley, Jacksonville

I like the things Pettine says, I like that he got seven wins out of Cleveland this year, and I liked the job he did with Buffalo’s defense. The jury’s still out on him in a lot of ways, some of which are caused by the inherent dysfunction in the Browns organization.

Bradley, like Quinn, is another guy I like as being good at what he does and inspiring his team’s confidence in his leadership. That said, he’s going to have to show some improvement from consecutive 4-12 seasons. Jacksonville’s roster is getting better; he needs to get the most out of it.

18. Ron Rivera, Carolina

Rivera backed off the Riverboat Ron approach somewhat in 2014, and since it was his major advantage, he’s back in the middle of the pack. One winning season in four years really isn’t that inspiring (even if one of those losing seasons came with a playoff win).

19. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants

In the good, he’s got a significant winning history, including two Super Bowls with the Giants, and seems to maintain a certain floor of play and professionalism. In the bad, he’s 68 years old and the game may be leaving him behind, particularly when it comes to player health and maintenance. (He’s sort of the opposite of Chip Kelly in this regard, which may have something to do with why the Giants lose so many games to injury each year.) Ranks this high on merit, but I’m not sure I’d want him as a new hire at this point.

 

Tier 5: The Tomlin Line

20. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh

I can’t figure out if Tomlin is a positive or a negative. On the one hand, the team keeps winning under him. On the other, that could be more due to Ben Roethlisberger and the surrounding talent– first the defense, then when the defense started to falter, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and crew. Tomlin often makes baffling in-game decisions regarding clock management, challenges, fourth downs, and the like. I struggle to pinpoint what he does well, but his teams keep winning. And unlike other coaches where I can find much clearer and more frequent examples of their poor in-game tactics costing them wins and equity, I can’t actually say if Tomlin’s bad decisions are enough to make him a net negative. It’s baffling. And that’s why I called the line of whether or not a coach is a detriment to his team “The Tomlin Line.”

 

Tier 6: Probably a negative overall

21. John Fox, Chicago

Still an upgrade from Marc Trestman, whose total failure of leadership still leaves me scratching my head. That said, Fox is inexcusably poor at in-game tactics, and his unwillingness to play rookies over less-talented veterans is another strike against him. He’s the guy I’d hire if I wanted a pretty good defense and didn’t have ambitions of going better than 7-9.

22. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay

This ranking is entirely credit for developing Aaron Rodgers. I haven’t figured out anything he’s done that provides value aside from that. His in-game cowardice is astonishing, whether it’s being put to use kicking an extra point down two in the fourth quarter of a must-win game, or in turtling up and blowing a lead in the NFC Championship game despite the world’s best quarterback and every other advantage on his side.

23. Jeff Fisher, St. Louis

His offensive philosophy is 40 years behind the times. I’ve written extensively on this site about his scumbag approach to coaching, which seems to involve cheap shots, after-whistle hits, and other unsportsmanlike attempts to bait the opposing team. He’s basically John Fox if you want players who will also beat people up. (Was anyone surprised that the Rams selected this guy in the supplemental draft?)

24. Gary Kubiak, Denver

I agreed with John Elway’s assessment that John Fox would not be the guy to take them over the hump. However, I think Gary Kubiak is even less suited to the job. He’s an even more incredible in-game coward than Fox, and seems to have even less ability to adjust his offensive philosophy or his gameplan to his opponents. If you want a coach who has one offensive plan to drive for a field goal, and no idea what to do when that plan fails, you hire Gary Kubiak. (I have written even more extensively about him on this site than I have Fisher.)

25. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay

Well, we’ve disproven the idea that he provides stability and a certain floor of play. How in the hell do you manage to make this team worse than it was under Greg Schiano? I don’t think Smith is creative enough to adapt to the talent on hand or to what is necessary in the modern game.

26. Jason Garrett, Dallas

A 12-4 season moves him out of the basement tier– even with all the offensive talent on hand, Garrett still has to put it all together– but he’s also notoriously conservative in-game; Dez Bryant’s should-have-been-a-catch-by-all-logic wouldn’t have mattered if Garrett wasn’t afraid to put the pedal to the metal in earlier situations to actually try to score points.

27. Jim Caldwell, Detroit

A steady hand who provided an improvement over Jim Schwartz, which suggests that almost anyone would provide an improvement over Jim Schwartz. No coincidence that this tier has all three coaches whose cowardice cost their team NFC playoff games in January 2015.

28. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco

It’s not entirely fair to rank him this much lower than the other rookie head coaches, since I know so little about him. This ranking is entirely about how negatively I view San Francisco’s entire offseason process; apparently, Jed York is less interested in winning than in saving money, and Trent Baalke is less interested in winning than he is in having a coach who won’t make waves and doesn’t command any organizational authority. Tomsula has reasonable equity to be horribly in over his head, based on the circumstances of his hiring.

 

Tier 7: I would have fired them already

29. Jack Del Rio, Oakland

I would have fired Reggie McKenzie for making this hire. The only special thing Del Rio brought as a coach in his time in Jacksonville was an axe. McKenzie has now demonstrated, in two consecutive offseasons, that after clearing out cap space and getting to sign and hire his guys, that he wants to build a team of mediocre retreads. Last year, it was Matt Schaub, LaMarr Woodley, and Justin Tuck. This year, it’s Del Rio. When this fails, I assume Rich Kotite and Tommy Maddox will get the call next.

30. Joe Philbin, Miami

Any head coach who was so clueless about what was going on with his team that he was unaware of the locker-room bullying that went on with the Dolphins is a failure of a leader. (A head coach who manages to avoid responsibility for these things certainly is.) Any head coach who combines that with fearful in-game decision-making demonstrates a lack of both of the major qualities required of a successful head coach. Stephen Ross clearly likes Philbin a lot, given his insistence on keeping him as coach (an insistence which made it difficult for the team to land a GM). If I were running the Dolphins, I’d have fired Philbin and promoted Bill Lazor yesterday.

31. Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee

On a 3-25 streak as head coach. Has a bizarre fetish for late-round QBs with big arms and no pocket presence or accuracy (Zach Mettenberger is Dan Marino compared to some of the QBs Whisenhunt tried to make it work with in Arizona). Two winning seasons out of a seven as a head coach, both of those bolstered by a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

I will say that Whisenhunt has more opportunity than anyone else at the bottom to elevate his ranking: If he can successfully develop Marcus Mariota, he can turn the Titans into winners, and he will deserve credit for that. I’m going to make him prove it before I raise him in my own rankings, though. (And this is as good a time as any to mention that I think Ruston Webster has a strong case to be the worst GM in the NFL.)

32. Jay Gruden, Washington

He’s too stubborn and inflexible to design an offense that suits his very talented quarterback. He publicly undermines said quarterback. He deflects responsibility and assigns blame. Nothing I see in Jay Gruden’s performance suggests head-coaching material. I’m shocked Washington managed to get worse at head coach after dismissing Negligent Mike Shanahan.

Thoughts on the recent NFL coaching changes

All in all, it was a pretty typical offseason as far as upheaval in the NFL head coaching ranks goes. Since the dust finally seems settled (only Atlanta’s head coaching job remains open, and it’s all but given that Seahawks DC Dan Quinn will immediately take it following the Super Bowl), I thought I’d look at all the moves made (and the moves not made) and offer my thoughts.

New York Jets

Though I like Rex Ryan as a head coach in general, I felt it was time for New York to move on from him. After six years, and nearly every major offensive component turning over at least once while Ryan was head coach– GMs, offensive coordinators, starting quarterbacks– the ultimate responsibility for failing to field an offense that could allow the team to compete is on him. (Chase Stuart of Football Perspective has a much more detailed account of Ryan’s flaws and the circumstances that demanded his firing.)

Todd Bowles has been a rising star in the coaching ranks after two years of maintaining the high standard of performance as Arizona’s defensive coordinator that was established when Ray Horton had the job. I think it’s a solid hire; I certainly prefer hiring a rising assistant to a known mediocrity.

I’m really intrigued by his hire of Chan Gailey as OC. While Gailey at first glance might seem like another face in a sea of retread coaches, he’s one of the more innovative faces there, having a history of developing unconventional offenses to maximize his talent at hand (most notably with Kansas City in 2008, when, left with only Tyler Thigpen at QB, he resorted to a spread attack similar to the one Thigpen ran at Coastal Carolina). That track record intrigues me, because it makes me think Gailey will do whatever is necessary to maximize his offensive talent and performance at QB– whether that QB is Geno Smith or someone else.

Buffalo Bills

In one of the most unusual moves in head-coaching history, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract due to a clause, that as far as I know, has never been executed in NFL history: The “If the owner dies and the team is sold, I can opt out of my deal after two years” contract. Marrone opted out of his deal, and though he was rumored as a hot head-coaching candidate for the available jobs, particularly the Jets and Falcons, he ultimately took the job of offensive line coach and assistant head coach in Jacksonville, not exactly a lateral move.

Marrone’s failure to find another head-coaching job wasn’t a total surprise; rumbles from Buffalo were that he was significantly overrated and had little to do with the team’s success (he’s an offensive coach, which means he is responsible for the team’s stagnant offense the last two seasons, and the complete disaster of the E.J. Manuel selection and development). Rex Ryan seems like a solid hire, although his specialty– rushing the passer– is something the team already does well, and he won’t fix the offensive problems the team has had the last several years.

Atlanta Falcons

I’m not surprised by Mike Smith’s firing: despite opening his career with five straight playoff appearances, the team cratered in 2013 and 2014, and while injuries and a thin roster played a serious part, so did his absolute terror at fourth-down situations and his inexplicable time management. The Falcons became a bad team at about the same time Smith lost his aggression on fourth-down situations.

I don’t know much about Dan Quinn, but he’s the second defensive coordinator to be hired away from Seattle since 2013, and I think Gus Bradley is doing well despite a poor record for two seasons. Without more specific information on Quinn, I expect he’s a solid hire, especially for a team that already has the most important building blocks to an elite passing offense and needs help revitalizing the defense.

Denver Broncos

I have mixed opinions about John Fox, but ultimately I think John Elway made a gutsy move to fire him. While Fox has always brought a solid defense with him wherever he goes, he actually doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record– only three winning seasons in ten before Peyton Manning became his starting quarterback; he’s basically the non-scumbag Jeff Fisher– and his overly conservative approach to offense was holding the team back. We saw it two years ago in the playoffs, when Fox sat on the ball at the end of the first half and again at regulation, despite having timeouts and, you know, possibly the greatest quarterback of all time behind center. This year, Fox seemed to not prepare for the divisional playoff game at all: the offense was anemic and a defense that had finished fourth in the regular season was invisible. I’ve heard rumors that Fox is one of those guys that treats the playoffs as “just another game,” not introducing new wrinkles or opponent-specific concepts into his gameplans. I think any coach that does this is giving up significant win equity, and in that sense, I absolutely agree with Elway that Fox would keep the team from reaching the next level.

Unfortunately, Elway replaced Fox with Gary Kubiak, someone even more averse to scoring points and offensive aggression (even more bizarre since he’s an offensive coach), and someone whose offensive system of play-action rollouts and bootlegs isn’t well-suited to Manning. I am skeptical this will work, and it would be a real shame if Peyton Manning’s career ended with another playoff upset caused in part by a head coach holding him back.

Chicago Bears

I ranked Marc Trestman much higher in my coaching rankings last year for a few reasons: I believed he had a much better sense of creating a strong offense and playing to his team’s strengths (Lovie Smith and his offensive coordinators stubbornly clung to deep dropbacks with a poor offensive line, subpar receiving talent, and removing Matt Forte at the goal line), as well as a much better sense of in-game situational management.

Fast-forward a year and it seems he completely lost the locker room. Obviously a guy has to go when that happens; what I don’t understand is how that happened. Without a better idea of why, I can’t say what Trestman should have done differently or if he deserves another chance to be a head coach someday. He’s on to be the new offensive coordinator in Baltimore, replacing Gary Kubiak.

John Fox is the new man in Chicago. If he can fix the defense, he’s a good hire, but you just read my concerns about him, and it’s possible he makes the offense even worse and more inconsistent than it was in 2014.

Oakland Raiders

Since the team dismissed Dennis Allen midseason and installed Tony Sparano as interim coach, a full-time replacement has been long in the making. I’m not sure why the team was so gung-ho about Jack Del Rio (and even more baffled that the team’s only apparent serious head coaching candidates were Del Rio and Sparano). Jokes about potentially dropping an axe on Khalil Mack’s foot aside, Del Rio has a 68-71 record as a head coach, with only two playoff appearances in nine seasons. The team looked at two mediocre retreads; I simply don’t understand the aversion to bringing in new blood, someone whose track record may be shorter but at least isn’t mediocre.

Del Rio’s first hire was Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator. Musgrave’s history of coordinating NFL offenses is, frankly, not good. However, he was Matt Ryan’s quarterback coach for his first three years in the league, and I suppose Del Rio has some hope he can develop Derek Carr in the same manner. Or maybe Del Rio is just hiring his old buddy from the 2003-04 Jaguars (team record: 14-18). Given that Del Rio’s head-coaching record screams “mediocre retread,” my first thought is that Musgrave falls into the same category.

(Yes, I used the phrase “mediocre retread” a lot. Get used to it. The NFL has Mediocre Retread Syndrome.)

San Francisco 49ers

Jim Tomsula may be an inspired head-coaching hire, but I strongly believe this was the culmination of a series of moves designed to compete long enough simply to secure a new stadium before returning to running the team on the cheap. Jed York should be embarrassed.

Other Situations

  • Miami: I don’t know why the team retained Joe Philbin. Bill Lazor was a smart OC hire, and one of the biggest reasons the team improved, but Philbin still seems clueless and cowardly when it comes to in-game decisions.
    Of course, the entire power structure in Miami is a mess, and the team just brought in Mike Tannenbaum for some reason, so I’ll continue to expect a certain level of dysfunction from the team as long as Stephen Ross owns it.
  • Tennessee: This is the horrible team no one talks about. Ruston Webster has been embarrassingly bad at identifying talent (the guy brought you the Shonn Greene – Bishop Sankey two-headed backfield; need I say more?). Without Kurt Warner to carry him, Ken Whisenhunt has never shown anything as a head coach except a fascination for QBs with huge arms and horrible accuracy.
    Bud Adams died (good riddance to the guy who robbed Houston of the Oilers franchise) and his son Tommy seems yet to have noticed how terrible his team is. I’d clean out everyone; Adams the Younger barely seems to have considered that option after a 2-14 season where the team was completely non-competitive outside of a bizarre fluke week 1 win.
  • Washington: Jay Gruden doesn’t want to work with Robert Griffin. Jay Gruden should be fired, then. Quarterbacks with Griffin’s talent are rare, and if you’re a coach who refuses to maximize those talents, you are not doing your job and should be fired for cause.
    Scot McCloughan is an inspired choice to head personnel, but who knows what actual power he’ll wield for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise? The most interesting thing about the Washington franchise is how deep Dan Snyder will dig in to embarrass himself over the team’s racist nickname.
  • Tampa Bay: Hopefully Lovie Smith’s performance this year forever dispels the myth of “steady veteran leadership” at the head coaching position. I didn’t think it was possible for this team to be worse than it was under Greg Schiano last year, but, surprise!
    The team is alarmingly bereft of talent and very few of their free-agent signings and draft picks have worked. (Really, the team should promote whoever’s in charge of wide receiver scouting to run things, because Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson have been the only clear successes.) Much like their South Beach counterparts, this team has a messy org chart and a certain level of dysfunction that seems to stem from the very top. (Jacksonville may well have the brightest future of the Florida teams.)

First thoughts on free agency

Jairus Byrd good! Chris Williams bad! Okay, now that we’ve gotten those two out of the way, let’s move on to the ugly. Just a quick thought about one team’s inexplicable move that I feel reveals a limit on their ceiling…

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The Jets’ big looming question: To fire Rex Ryan, or not to fire Rex Ryan?

(ed. note: please welcome our latest contributor to the blog. Smiglet will be writing regularly in coverage of the Jets, advanced statistical analysis, and more.)

All offseason I’ve seen opinions and articles how Rex Ryan is guaranteed to be fired following the Jets upcoming season. Reasons cited have generally fallen into the following categories:

  • He failed to come through on his Super Bowl guarantees,
  • The new GM should be allowed to bring in his own guy,
  • His continuous support of Mark Sanchez in the face of fire and poor play.

All of these reasons are perfectly legitimate. Ryan always seemed to promise just a little more than he delivered. New regimes always create turnover in both rosters and coaching. Ryan’s opinion on Sanchez has never been close to the truth. All that said, the Jets would be making an enormous mistake in firing him after just one more year.

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Four More Teams, Part 3

I started this column by picking four teams whose drafts I wanted to critique, just as in the last two posts, but as I began writing, I started to include off-season moves and recent drafts for context, and I began to notice that these organizations all seem to have some systemic problems.

I try to examine why. Not surprisingly, I think in many cases it goes back to the owners. Poor owners make poor hiring decisions, either because they don’t evaluate front-office talent well or because good front-office talent doesn’t want to work with them because of the owners’ flaws, from stinginess to excessive meddling to general incompetence.

Let’s look at how the recent moves these teams made fit into a chain of bad decision-making– and, in one case, how they could be signs of an end of an era of it. This one’s a fair bit longer than the last two…

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