The win-now mentality that the NFL is so well known for doesn’t even preclude first-year head coaches from that type of pressure, as new hires are routinely expected to deliver the goods starting from Day One in their new gigs. If there is anything akin to a honeymoon period for an incoming coach, it’s in the off-season, before his perfect record starts getting marred by real-life results.
This year, seven new head coaches were hired, and try telling the likes of Denver’s Gary Kubiak, Chicago’s John Fox, San Francisco’s Jim Tomsula and Buffalo’s Rex Ryan that they’re not expected to hit the ground running and get it right from the start. Much like highly drafted quarterbacks these days, coaches no longer get to keep the training wheels on for long.
Last season began with seven new head coaches as well, and only one of them—Detroit’s Jim Caldwell—accomplished the feat of going to the playoffs in his first season on the job. Caldwell took over an undisciplined Lions team that had collapsed down the stretch to finish 7–9 in 2013, leading it to a surprising 11–5 record and an NFC wild-card berth, only Detroit’s second postseason berth since 1999.
A 1-of-7 success rate isn’t anything to brag about, but last season still made it nine consecutive years that at least one NFL coach made the playoffs in his first season with a new team, a streak that started in 2006, when the Saints’ Sean Payton, the Chiefs’ Herman Edwards and the Jets’ Eric Mangini all fielded playoff qualifiers. Over the course of those nine seasons (2006–14), 19 of the 64 new coaching hires (29.7 percent) have made playoff trips in their first attempts, a very respectable rate of turnaround.
And while Caldwell’s Lions were the only club to crack the playoffs, Detroit was not the lone first-year success story among the new coaching hires. Overall, five of the seven teams with new coaches improved their record from 2014, with only Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith and Tennessee’s Ken Whisenhunt bucking that trend (despite having Super Bowl berths on their resumes, both had 2–14 clubs that wildly underachieved, earning the top two picks in the draft).
Bill O’Brien increased the Texans’ win total by a whopping seven games, going 9–7 and just missing the playoffs after 2013’s ugly 2–14 fade. Cleveland’s Mike Pettine had the usually dreadful Browns returning to relevancy for much of the season before the team’s perennial quarterback instability again dragged it down. Still, Cleveland went a somewhat hopeful 7–9 last year, winning three more games than it did the season before. And the arrow was clearly pointing up in Minnesota, too, where Mike Zimmer had his scrappy Vikings playing everyone tough and cobbling together a 7–9 record with a rookie starting at quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and no Adrian Peterson in the backfield.
Alas, we have mentioned every 2014 new head coach except Washington’s Jay Gruden, who barely moved the needle in the nation’s capital, going 4–12 in his first season on the job, after Mike Shanahan’s final club mailed it in to the tune of 3–13 in 2013. There’s still nowhere to go but up in D.C.
But what of this year’s crop of new hires? Glad you asked. Chances seem very good indeed that one or more will have their teams still playing in January, fighting for a berth in the landmark Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif. After all, four of this year’s new coaches are proven commodities, with Fox, Ryan, Kubiak and Oakland’s Jack Del Rio all having led teams to the playoffs at least twice in their head coaching careers.
And in the case of rookie head coaches Tomsula, Atlanta’s Dan Quinn and the Jets’ Todd Bowles, each takes over a team with considerable talent on hand and a fairly recent run of playoff berths to the franchise's name. The 49ers went three straight years from 2011–2013 and made the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. Atlanta advanced four times in the five years spanning 2008–2012, and the Jets posted those consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009–2010. So the postseason is not a concept that passes for ancient history in any of those cases.
As the off-season unwinds through OTAs, here’s our projection of the playoff chances of the seven teams that have brought in a fresh face at head coach, with only the Broncos playing into January last year. The Jets, Bears and Raiders were all last-place clubs in 2014, while the Falcons and 49ers failed to live up to sizable preseason expectations and couldn’t even top the .500 mark.
1. Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos—There’s win now, and then there’s the almost unique urgency of the situation Kubiak finds himself in with the Super Bowl-contending Broncos, a team built around the obvious limitation of Peyton Manning’s career hourglass. At 39, and having shown signs of age and attrition late last season, does Manning still have a window of Super Bowl opportunity in 2015, or is it really more of a porthole on a ship that sailed as high and far as it was going to go with 2013’s failed Super Bowl run?
It would be an upset if the Broncos don’t reach the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season—although I think the Chargers are a real threat to end Denver’s streak of four straight AFC West titles—and Kubiak’s emphasis on the running game should ensure that Manning doesn’t have to carry too much of the offensive load when the weather turns rougher in the season’s second half. But there’s a race-against-time element to everything the Broncos will be facing this season, and just making the playoffs is hardly the goal in Denver.
How Manning fits into Kubiak’s run-heavy offense, with all those play-action and bootleg calls, will be an interesting storyline to watch. But it’s pretty clearly last-shot time in Denver, and that’s a tough assignment for Kubiak to inherit, especially since his Houston teams never did better than the AFC divisional round of the playoffs. At least there’s this nugget for the Broncos to cling to: The past two times Manning has played on a team breaking in a new head coach, his Colts went to the playoffs with Tony Dungy in 2002 and the Super Bowl with Jim Caldwell in 2009.
Playoff chances: 65 percent.
2. Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills—The Bills and their fans have a case of Rex Mania so far, and there are finally some reasons for real optimism in Buffalo, where the NFL’s longest current playoff drought now stands at 15 agonizing seasons. Consider this: In 2008, the Jets went 9–7 in the AFC East, but failed to make the playoffs and fired coach Eric Mangini, hiring Ryan to replace him. That decision produced two consecutive AFC title game appearances for New York, and four playoff victories in Ryan’s first two seasons, despite a defense-led Jets team that featured a game-manager-type quarterback in Mark Sanchez.
See the similarities? The Bills went 9–7 last season in the AFC East, failed to make the playoffs, saw coach Doug Marrone depart, and hired Ryan as his replacement. It’s a deep and potentially dominant defense that also leads the way in Buffalo, and the hope is that veteran Matt Cassel or third-year pro EJ Manuel can provide just enough steady quarterbacking to keep the Bills in games. And with the likes of LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Charles Clay added to the roster, Cassel and Manuel aren’t lacking for weapons.
On paper at least, this is Buffalo’s best team this century. And while I get all the doubts about Manuel taking this team to the playoffs, let’s not sell Cassel short. He twice went 10–5 as a starter, helping the Tom Brady-less Patriots to an 11–5 record in 2008 and Kansas City to a 10–6 AFC West title in 2010. If he isn’t asked to do more than he’s capable of, he can move the chains and win some games. The Bills have a formula I can see producing a wild-card berth this season, just like Ryan’s first couple of over-achieving Jets teams managed.
Playoff chances: 50 percent.
3. Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons—Snatching Quinn away from Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle was the smartest coaching hire of the off-season, but he’s not the only reason why I’m this high on the Falcons’ chances to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Three words: Strength of schedule. Atlanta has it going on in that department.
The Falcons, of course, play in the NFC South, which last year featured Carolina winning the division at a lowly 7–8–1. So there’s that. And then there’s this: Atlanta in 2015 also draws the middling NFC East (just one playoff team last year) and the weak AFC South (just one playoff team last year). Add it all up and the Falcons were gifted with the softest schedule in the league this season, with their opponents playing at a .409 clip last year, and just four games this season coming against 2014 playoff teams: at Dallas, home against the Colts, and their home and home series with the sub-.500 Panthers.
A reminder for you: In the past five seasons, teams with one of the five easiest strength of schedule ratings have made the playoffs 50 percent of the time. In the NFC South, which only last year featured a repeat division champion for the first time in the division’s existence, making big strides in the standings is standard procedure. With Matt Ryan and quality offensive firepower still in place in Atlanta, and Quinn’s defensive imprint hopefully shoring up the Falcons’ weak link, nine or 10 wins and a postseason berth seems within reach.
Playoff chances: 40 percent.
4. Todd Bowles, New York Jets—Jets coaches historically don’t last long, but they almost always start off strongly. I know, I know. Geno Smith might still be New York’s No. 1 quarterback this season. And if not, journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick will probably get the call. But still, Jets coaches win early. As in right away. They just do. You can look it up.
Rex Ryan went 9–7 and got New York to the AFC title game in 2009. Eric Mangini went 10–6 and earned a wild-card berth in 2006. Herm Edwards went 10–6 and got his club to the wild-card round in 2001. Al Groh only coached one season, in 2000, but his team went 9–7. And Bill Parcells got the 1997 Jets all the way to 9–7, one year after New York bottomed out at 1–15. The last first-year Jets head coach who didn’t win at least nine games? The immortal Rich Kotite, who went 3–13 in 1995.
New York is obviously loaded defensively, and it’ll be fun to watch the smart and creative Bowles figure out how to use the bountiful talent he has on the defensive line and in the secondary. With Brandon Marshall, Devin Smith, Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy added on offense, New York can at least threaten a defense more so than at any point during the franchise’s current four-year run of playoff-less seasons. From last year’s 4–12 cliff dive all the way to the postseason might be too much to ask for, but the Jets will again be heard from in the greatly improved AFC East.
Playoff chances: 33 percent.
5. Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders—The Raiders have been irrelevant for so long and last year’s crash and burn record of 3-13 was so ugly at times that it's easy to overlook the solid pieces that are in place in Oakland. But any team that can hope to have a quarterback-receiver tandem like Derek Carr and Amari Cooper for years to come, with Khalil Mack to build around on defense, isn’t devoid of hope. And this time, the hope feels legitimate, even with the Raiders working on a franchise-worst 12-year playoff drought.
Del Rio is no miracle worker, but he was an underrated hire. He made two playoff trips and had five non-losing seasons in his nine-year stint in Jacksonville, and check the record books to see how the Jaguars have done since he was fired late in the 2011 season. It’s not pretty.
Oakland didn’t quite make the big splash many expected in free agency, but there were solid gains made with the acquisitions of center Rodney Hudson, safety Nate Allen, running back Roy Helu, receiver Michael Crabtree and defensive tackle Dan Williams. And even better, the Raiders lured Ken Norton Jr. out of Seattle and installed him as their defensive coordinator, a move that should bode well for Mack and fellow outside linebacker Sio Moore, and instill a sense of toughness in an underachieving Oakland defense.
Playoff chances: 25 percent.
6. Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers—At this point, it’s impossible to know if Tomsula was truly ready for this gig and the daunting task of following up on the team’s ultra-successful Jim Harbaugh era. But the consensus opinion is that it’s going to be a tough lift for the former 49ers defensive line coach, who brings boundless enthusiasm but very little head coaching experience to the table.
To be sure, San Francisco still has plenty of talent and a lot of proven commodities on the roster, but the subtraction of locker room leaders has been substantial. Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Frank Gore are gone, along with other key cogs like Mike Iupati, Chris Borland, Michael Crabtree, Chris Culliver and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. That’s a lot to replace in one off-season, and I don’t see additions like Darnell Dockett, Torrey Smith and Reggie Bush being enough to offset the losses.
It doesn’t help that San Francisco plays in one of the league’s toughest divisions, the NFC West, with the powerhouse Seahawks and Cardinals and a last-place Rams team that looks ready to make a move. The 49ers’ schedule is the third toughest in the league (.561), and Tomsula’s first task should be trying to re-establish the home field advantage the 49ers seemingly lost with last year’s move to Santa Clara, stumbling to a 4-4 record at Levi’s Stadium. Suffice to say the Super Bowl's streak of having never been played on the home field of one of the game’s participants looks almost certain to continue.
Playoff chances: 20 percent.
7. John Fox, Chicago Bears—On the plus side, Fox is the most accomplished head coach to take the Bears job since the legendary George Halas opted for his fourth and final stab at running the show in 1958. On the down side, Fox is stuck with Jay Cutler as his starting quarterback, and that scenario didn’t work out too well for Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman, his two predecessors on the Chicago sideline.
With his seven playoff berths in 13 years in Carolina and Denver, including a Super Bowl season in each place, Fox gives the Bears instant credibility. And the hiring of Adam Gase as offensive coordinator pairs Cutler with one of the brighter young minds in the game to work with. Cutler can’t blame his problems on Gase, because he didn’t seem to be the problem in Denver when he had Peyton Manning at quarterback.
The Bears defense was dreadful last year, and it’ll no doubt improve significantly with new coordinator Vic Fangio and Fox on the scene. But getting the defense straightened out still isn’t the most pressing issue in Chicago. Until the Bears can solve the enigma that is Cutler and get consistent play from him, it’s hard to see them closing the gap on the Vikings, Lions or Packers. In the NFC North foursome, Chicago still looks like a club with last-place potential.
Playoff chances: 10 percent.