Trying to make sense of the NFL’s seven-man class of new head coaches, now that Atlanta and Dan Quinn have finally made their marriage official. ...
• It’s fairly easy to see why the league opted to tilt toward what we’ll call the re-hired head coaching set (re-tread has such an unflattering connotation), with all four of the re-hires among this year’s seven new coaches having reached the playoffs at least twice in previous gigs: Chicago’s John Fox (seven postseason berths in 13 years in Carolina and Denver, including a pair of Super Bowl losses); Buffalo’s Rex Ryan (two AFC title game losses in six years with the Jets); Denver’s Gary Kubiak (two divisional weekend appearances in eight years in Houston); and Oakland’s Jack Del Rio (an underappreciated two playoff trips and five non-losing seasons in nine years in Jacksonville).
Experience has been the better bet of late. In the five hiring cycles spanning 2010-14, there were 33 head coaching moves made. Of that group, 21 were first-time NFL head coaches, and 12 were re-hires. Seven of the 21 rookie head coaches have led their teams to the playoffs at least once, but of the 12 re-hired coaches, six have made the postseason at least once since getting the job, a snazzy 50 percent success rate.
That’s a list that includes Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Washington’s Mike Shanahan in the 2010 class, Denver’s Fox in '11, Kansas City’s Andy Reid and Arizona’s Bruce Arians (yes, if he was 2012 Coach of the Year in Indianapolis, he gets credit for his interim stint with the Colts) in '13’s class and and Detroit’s Jim Caldwell in '14.
That’s a solid track record to rely on, but of course, this is the NFL, so stability is not really part of the equation. Of those 33 new hires from 2010-14, only 18 of those coaches are still on the job for their teams, with 15 others already gone. As we’ve seen with Shanahan in Washington and Fox in Denver, going to the playoffs isn’t always enough to assure long-term employment.
Still, we’ve just enjoyed our second consecutive Super Bowl matchup that featured re-hired head coaches, with Bill Belichick’s Patriots besting Carroll’s Seahawks, a year after Seattle trounced Fox’s Broncos. And it’s a three years out of four trend going back to the 2011 season’s Super Bowl, when the Giants’ Tom Coughlin knocked off Belichick for the second time in a five-season span. After a three-year run that saw first-time head coaches Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh 2008), Sean Payton (New Orleans 2009) and Mike McCarthy (Green Bay 2010) win a ring within five years of being hired, the trend is pointing back to the second (or even third) time around club.
• But not everyone is convinced youth isn’t the way to go in terms of coaching hires, and I can see why they feel that way when I look at this year’s three first-time head coaches: Atlanta’s Quinn, the Jets’ Todd Bowles, and San Francisco’s Jim Tomsula.
Recall the recent history of the Falcons’, Jets’ and 49ers’ coaching hires. Atlanta opted for the little-known Mike Smith off Del Rio’s Jacksonville staff in 2008 and proceeded to make the playoffs four times in the next five years, setting a franchise record with five straight winning seasons. Like Smith, Ryan was a first-time head coach when New York tabbed him in 2009, and all he did was lead Gang Green to the AFC Championship Game in his first two seasons on the job. Ditto and even better for Jim Harbaugh, who came to San Francisco in 2011 and then led the resurgent 49ers to three consecutive NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance.
The Falcons, Jets and 49ers all went with first-time head coaches in their previous hires, and each franchise’s most successful recent stints quickly followed. Viewing Quinn, Bowles and Tomsula in that light adds some heft to their hiring.
• To look at things another way, the three clubs that went with first-time head coaches all could have decided that imitation is the highest form of flattery. No division in the NFL has taken more of a hit this hiring season than the vaunted NFC West, which has produced the past three NFC champions and sent at least one team to the NFC title game for four years running.
With Quinn joining the Falcons, the Seahawks lost their well-respected defensive coordinator for the second time in three seasons, with Quinn having replaced Gus Bradley when he left for Jacksonville after the 2012 season.
The Arizona Cardinals lost their highly-regarded defensive coordinator with Bowles’ move to New York. And the 49ers’ dismissal of Harbaugh paved the way for Tomsula, the team’s former defensive line coach, but most of the rest of Harbaugh’s successful staff was perhaps unwisely sacrificed in the process, with Chicago hiring away defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and Buffalo quickly scooping up offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Throw in Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer leaving St. Louis for the same post at the University of Georgia, and every team in the NFC West has lost at least one coordinator this offseason. The coaching staffs in the NFC West have done a lot of winning of late, and they were raided as never before in early 2015.
• Of the seven teams that changed head coaches this year, five of them haven’t made the playoffs in the past two years or longer, and thus offer a high ceiling for those new coaches to show improvement.
If I had to do a ranking of potential improvement at the moment, I’d have it:
1. Dan Quinn, Atlanta (last playoff berth in 2012): He’s got the offensive talent and elite skill players to win now, and his expertise on defense should upgrade the Falcons’ glaring weakness.
2. Rex Ryan, Buffalo (1999): The Bills went 9-7 under Doug Marrone in 2014, but I think Ryan reproduces his early success in New York and rides a deep and potentially dominant defense to a playoff berth in Year 1.
4. John Fox, Chicago (2010): Will Fox boost the Bears’ woeful defense? Yes. Will he fare any better with the enigmatic Jay Cutler than Lovie Smith or Marc Trestman did? Nope. Fox will pine for Peyton Manning this year.
5. Todd Bowles, N.Y. Jets (2010): I like Bowles and think he’s a smart, capable teacher and leader of men. But it’s hard to have much confidence that real change is on the way in New York with Woody Johnson and Geno Smith still on the scene.
6. Gary Kubiak, Denver (2014): The Broncos will probably be a playoff team for the fifth year in a row this season, and maybe Peyton Manning has one more surprise in store for us if he returns, as he appears likely to do. But it feels as if the Broncos took their best shot in 2012-14 and didn’t quite make it to the top of the mountain, meaning regression is probably in store.
7. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco (2013): I’m willing to bet the 49ers already know they’re not better off with the lightly experienced Tomsula replacing the high-maintenance Harbaugh. The front office’s blood pressure will certainly fall, but so will the team’s winning percentage.