No experience? No problem in today’s NFL.
As of Friday, six of the league’s eight head coaching vacancies had officially been filled, and the Dolphins and Bengals had settled on the Patriots’ Brian Flores and the Rams’ Zac Taylor, respectively, but couldn’t officially hire them yet.
Of the eight coaches, only two, Bruce Arians and Adam Gase, had previous NFL head coaching experience. Everyone else is a first-timer, and it’s not the most veteran group.
Matt LaFleur, Kliff Kingsbury, Flores, and Taylor are still in their 30s. Flores has one year of play-calling experience, while Freddie Kitchens has two months’ worth, and Taylor has done it for all of a month in the NFL. Kingsbury has only coached in college, and hasn’t been affiliated with the NFL since he was a player in 2006.
In a copy-cat league, it seems that many teams are now trying to find their own Sean McVay — a young, offensive-savvy coach who relates better to today’s players and isn’t afraid to incorporate college football concepts — even if the coach is short on top-level experience.
“I’m fascinated that in Kitchens and [Colts defensive coordinator Matt] Eberflus, we have two people that it appears were capable of doing a lot more than anyone had hired them to do for many years,” said former Eagles and Browns president Joe Banner. “I wonder how many other guys like this the league is overlooking.”
Let’s take a look at how the coaching cycle has spun thus far:
■ Two clear trends emerged, and they are related.
The first is that of the eight hires, six are offensive coaches, and all six have quarterback backgrounds. New Broncos coach Vic Fangio and Flores are the only defensive coaches to get a top job.
The second trend, which is troubling for the NFL, is that five minority head coaches were fired, and the only one hired was Flores. He will join Anthony Lynn, Mike Tomlin, and Ron Rivera as the NFL’s only minority head coaches, down from eight last year.
The trends are related because, as we pointed out last week, NFL head coaches overwhelmingly come from the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach background. And as noted above, six of the eight hires this year have quarterbacking backgrounds. But the NFL had just two minority offensive coordinators in 2018, and two minority quarterbacks coaches, and one from each list was the same person (Byron Leftwich).
If the NFL is serious about promoting diversity among its coaches, it needs to do a better job of creating opportunities for minorities to develop as quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators.
■ Several minority GMs and executives were fired in recent years — the Giants’ Jerry Reese, the Texans’ Rick Smith, the Bills’ Doug Whaley, the Raiders’ Reggie McKenzie, the Browns’ Sashi Brown — and the Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome just retired. This leaves the NFL with just one minority GM, Miami’s Chris Grier, making the Dolphins the only team with a minority coach and GM.
Grier, a Holliston native and UMass grad, spent the first six years of his scouting career with the Patriots, but didn’t have any overlap with Flores — Grier left for the Dolphins in 2000, and Flores joined the Patriots in 2004.
■ Josh McDaniels’s announcement that he is returning to the Patriots next year is great for the team and Tom Brady. But it is certainly noteworthy that McDaniels didn’t even get a phone call from the Cardinals or Browns, teams that were both looking for young, offensive-minded head coaches to work with their young quarterbacks. A year ago, McDaniels probably would have been at the top of both teams’ lists. But he clearly needs at least another year to rehabilitate his image after pulling the switcheroo on the Colts last year.
■ The Packers’ hiring of LaFleur has caused a little head scratching from fans and outside observers. LaFleur, 39, has just two years of offensive coordinator experience — one with the Rams in 2017 that went well, and one with the Titans in 2018 that wasn’t as good, with the Titans finishing 27th in points and 25th in total offense.
But I understand the hire. The Packers have been running a variation of the same West Coast offense for almost 30 years, since Mike Holmgren came to town. LaFleur was plucked from the same coaching tree, having worked under Gary Kubiak, Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan, and McVay, who all run a similar system.
With Aaron Rodgers 35 and having only a few years left, it wouldn’t make sense for the Packers to have Rodgers learn an entirely new system. LaFleur brings continuity and, let’s be honest, might be taking orders from Rodgers, not giving them.
LaFleur wasn’t able to turn Marcus Mariota from a frog to a prince this season, but in the past he did great work with Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Jared Goff.
■ The hire getting the most criticism is Kingsbury in Arizona. The former Patriots sixth-round pick has only coached in college, and without much fanfare — he had only two winning seasons out of six at Texas Tech, and was fired recently after compiling a 35-40 record. And to hire Kingsbury, the Cardinals dumped their previous coach, Steve Wilks (a minority), after just one season.
Anyone panning the hire is just guessing. Kingsbury might be a dud, he might be the next McVay, or he could be somewhere in between. But it was clear that the Cardinals wanted a young, quarterback-savvy coach to help develop Josh Rosen. And Kingsbury coached Patrick Mahomes in college, so maybe he does know a thing or two.
■ Same goes for those panning the Jets’ hiring of Gase, barely a week after he was fired by the Dolphins. Gase wasn’t able to turn Ryan Tannehill into an elite quarterback, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a good fit for Sam Darnold.
What’s clear is that after four years of Bowles rocking everyone to sleep with his boring news conferences, the Jets wanted a bigger personality this time. And Gase is nothing if not an entertaining quote.
■ The most fascinating hire is Kitchens, 44, who started last season as the Browns’ running backs coach. But Kitchens took over the offense when Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley got fired after Week 8, and Baker Mayfield and the Browns’ offense performed so well under Kitchens that the Browns hired Kitchens over Gregg Williams and several other candidates for the head coaching job.
From Week 9 on under Kitchens, the Browns were fifth in total offense, Mayfield had the fifth-highest passer rating (106.2), and the Browns went 5-3.
■ The Buccaneers’ answer to salvaging Jameis Winston and getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 is, apparently, “Let’s get the Arizona Cardinals back together!”
They pulled Arians out of the CBS booth after one year to become the head coach, and he brought with him his old defensive coordinator (Bowles), and his former intern and protégé to be the offensive coordinator (Leftwich). The Buccaneers’ new defensive backs and running backs coaches also worked with Arians in Arizona.
Arians did great work with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Carson Palmer in the past, and now will work to reclaim Winston, who is entering a make-or-break season in the final year of his contract.
■ Interesting to see the Broncos turn from one defensive coach with no previous head coaching experience (Vance Joseph) to another defensive coach with no previous head coaching experience (Fangio).
But Fangio is no young pup, either. He has been an NFL defensive coordinator since 1995, and has been a coordinator or assistant head coach for six teams spanning 22 years.
■ The Bengals are reportedly going to hire Taylor to be their new head coach. Who? He’s the 35-year-old son-in-law of former Packers coach Mike Sherman, has been a quarterbacks coach for the Dolphins and Rams, spent one month as the Dolphins’ interim offensive coordinator, and was viewed this year as a rising star who was probably a year or two away from being ready to become a head coach.
But McVay’s immediate success changed the perception about young coaches, to Taylor’s benefit. It’s also safe to say that Taylor was more in line with the Bengals’ budget for paying a head coach than some of the more seasoned candidates.
LESS NOW, MORE LATER?
Extra picks could help down road
One reason the Patriots’ offense took a step back this season was that Tom Brady didn’t feel comfortable with the weapons around him. The Patriots let Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis walk in free agency, traded Brandin Cooks, and went bargain shopping for replacements. Cordarrelle Patterson worked out, but Eric Decker, Jordan Matthews, and Kenny Britt decidedly didn’t. Sony Michel is still to be determined.
If the Patriots lose before reaching the Super Bowl, we can put some of the blame on their inability to put better talent around Brady. But while it may cost the Patriots in the short term, there was definitely a long-term strategy to the roster moves (or lack thereof).
An interesting story on OverTheCap.com projects that the Patriots will cash in on compensatory draft picks this year. The NFL only awards 32 of them, from the third to seventh rounds, and the Patriots are projected to receive four — third-rounders for Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler, a fifth-rounder for Amendola, and a seventh-rounder for Cam Fleming. These will land at the end of each round.
Assuming this comes to fruition, this would give the Patriots 11 draft picks, including six in the top three rounds. They have their own first- and second-round picks, a late-second rounder from the Bears, an early third-rounder from the Lions, and two compensatory picks in the third round. The Patriots traded their own third-round pick to the Browns for Danny Shelton (woof).
The Patriots will then have five picks on Day 3 of the draft — a fourth, a compensatory fifth, and three sevenths.
This seems like a deliberate strategy from the Patriots to a) have a lot of flexibility in the first three rounds to draft a quarterback, and b) restock the roster with young talent.
The Patriots will be drafting at the back end of the first round again, but they have enough ammunition to get all the way to the top of the draft, if they identify a quarterback they want. They also have the resources to draft a QB in Round 2 or 3, if they identify a Jimmy Garoppolo-type sleeper. And they need an infusion of young talent across the roster, as the Patriots have gotten very little out of the draft in recent years.
Brown won’t be traded in haste
The most newsworthy quote from Steelers president Art Rooney to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week was that it would be “hard to envision” Antonio Brown being with the team when it reports to training camp in July following Brown’s insubordination in Week 17 and frequent temper tantrums throughout the season.
“That’s one of the questions we have to answer — whether we can get to a point where we all feel good about him being on the roster next year,” Rooney said. “We have a way to go before we feel good about that.”
But read the entire interview, and Rooney was more vague and straddled the fence about Brown’s future.
“We’re not closing the door on anything at this point,” Rooney said. “All options are on the table. We have two months to go before we can do anything. There’s no sense making the decision now. We’ll see how things play out.”
That’s because the best course of action for the Steelers is to sit back and let Brown decide his fate. If Brown holds out of training camp or acts insubordinate after reporting, the Steelers can fine and suspend Brown.
As Rooney said, there is no sense in making any rash decisions. The Steelers can’t trade Brown until the new league year begins on March 13. One deadline is March 17, the date in which the Steelers owe Brown a $2.5 million bonus. If the Steelers trade Brown between March 13-17, they would save more than $15 million in cash, but would take a $21 million dead salary cap hit. The Steelers could also pay the bonus and wait until after June 1 to trade Brown, in which case they would take a $9.5 million cap hit in 2019, and a $14 million cap hit in 2020.
The only reason to trade Brown is if the Steelers are desperate to get rid of him being a distraction. Otherwise, it makes more sense to take their time and give Brown a chance to simmer down and clear his head. Because having Brown on the roster is much better than dumping him for draft picks.
Titans hire BC’s Piraino
The Titans made an under-the-radar hire, Frank Piraino as their strength and conditioning coach. Piraino didn’t have any direct connection to Titans coach Mike Vrabel, but he did have one with Vrabel’s son.
Piraino spent the last six years as the strength coach at Boston College, where this past season one of his players was Tyler Vrabel, who played two games as a freshman offensive lineman. Mike Vrabel has been around the Eagles’ program a lot over the past year, even attending the Miami-BC game on a Friday night back in late October.
Piraino and Mike Vrabel also both worked under Urban Meyer — Piraino at Florida, Vrabel at Ohio State.
Since the NFL expanded to the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only five teams seeded No. 6 have reached the conference championship game. The last to do it were the Jets and Packers in 2010. If the Colts had won Saturday, followed by the Chargers on Sunday, it would have marked the first 5 vs. 6 conference championship game in NFL history . . . The highest quarterback rating in postseason history (minimum 150 attempts)? It’s Nick Foles, who has a 105.2 career rating with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions . . . Great job by the Dolphins, nominating Aaron Feis for the NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. Feis was an assistant coach at Stoneman Douglas High School who died last February while shielding students from gunfire.