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Grades for 2015 NFL coaching hires

The 2015 coaching carousel is in full swing. Which teams are making the right decisions for their future? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar grade all the offseason coaching hires.

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Gary Kubiak, Denver Broncos

Grade: B

How Kubiak's scheme will translate to the current Broncos' roster really begins at the quarterback spot, with the future of Peyton Manning.

Manning, 39 in March, was but a shell of his former self down the stretch, culminating in an altogether uninspiring effort against Indianapolis last week. A quad injury that had hampered Manning throughout December was the latest physical ailment to frustrate the future Hall of Fame QB. That said, his performances had been up and down prior to a Week 15 win over San Diego, when he reportedly suffered the injury.

Following the Broncos' playoff ouster, Manning was noncommittal about his 2015 plans. Elway later offered that he believed Manning would return.

Broncos' expectations unchanged as John Elway lays out team's future

"I do," Elway said. "I knew as a player the last thing after that last game that you want to do is talk about your future ... because of what happened on Sunday, in his situation, I told him, 'Let's not even go into the future. Just know how much we want you back but you need to take the time and get away from this.'

"I told him in four or five weeks -- I'm going to stay in touch with him -- we'll get back together and see where he is because the career that he's had, what he's done not only in the NFL but in the short time he's been here with the Denver Broncos, what he's meant to us is tremendous. So we'll continue to monitor that. But the bottom line is we want him back and it's going to come down to what Peyton wants to do."

On the surface, Manning would be a square peg-round hole fit for Kubiak's offense. Flacco, Elway and others like former Texans QB Matt Schaub have been able to take advantage of Kubiak's play calling, which often puts its quarterback on the move off play-action. Manning never has resembled a mobile QB, and he certainly does not qualify as one now.

Where Kubiak's  style should fit well, as usual, is on the ground. The Broncos employ a relatively athletic offensive line, in front of a loaded RB corps featuring C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman.

Anderson stepped up as the team's No. 1 back once Ball and Hillman fell to injury. Given Kubiak's history feeding a workhorse starter, Anderson could be in line for a monster 2015 season if he maintains his hold on the position.

Defensively, the Texans finished ranked in the top 10 for each of Kubiak's final three seasons, thanks in no small part to J.J. Watt's presence. Kubiak will inherit plenty of talent on that side of the football, too, starting with another superstar edge player: Von Miller.

The entire Kubiak regime will be measured up against that of Fox, so the question now is if this hire represents an upgrade in any way.

The answer? Perhaps, at least in terms of getting Elway more into a comfort zone with the direction of the team.  

Where this goes from here depends first and foremost on Manning's decision regarding his future. If he comes back -- healthy -- for the 2015 season, the Broncos would have to be considered an AFC favorite again. Should he opt for retirement, it would deliver a hit in the short-term, but may allow Kubiak to find a more system-friendly quarterback for the long run. -- Chris Burke

John Fox, Chicago Bears

Grade: A-minus

Stability -- Above all, that's what the Bears needed to find this offseason after their 2014 campaign spiraled into utter humiliation. They lost to the Patriots andPackers in Weeks 8 and 10, respectively, by a combined count of 106-37; they dropped their final five games; and, perhaps worst of all, the Bears sputtered to dead last in the NFC North at 5-11.

Upon taking over, the first task for Pace was to find a coach capable of bringing the franchise back to center.

"The first order of business is to hire the right head coach to lead us to championships," Pace said earlier this month. "I can assure you I understand the importance of decision."

Fox ought to fit the bill. Few current NFL head coaches have been around as long as Fox, who started his NFL career as a defensive assistant in 1989, then later served as defensive coordinator for theRaiders ('94-'95) and Giants ('97-2001). He then took over as head coach in Carolina back in 2002, and in his second season there, the Panthers advanced all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to New England. This season, his third year with the Broncos, ended in similar disappointment but, well, he's been where the Bears would like to go.

The Bears will value his defensive background, bringing Bears back closer to their longstanding identity as a team built on defense, even if the message of another defense-first head coach, Lovie Smith, grew stale toward the end of his nine-year Chicago tenure. The "Monsters of the Midway" moniker could not have felt further from reality over the past two seasons, as Chicago finished 30th and then 31st in points allowed. While Trestman ultimately deserved his fate, much of the blame for his regime imploding fell to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker -- it was almost incomprehensible that Tucker survived the entire 2014 season before being removed from his post.

Now, the biggest question is if Fox can drum up enough offense to avoid the pitfalls that doomed Smith's tenure? File that question away under TBD.

The Broncos led the league in points and yards under Fox in 2013 and were a top-five offense in several major categories over the past three seasons. However, Peyton Manning has to draw most of the praise there, given that the Broncos had minimal firepower in '11, one year prior to his arrival.

Of course, Fox also pushed that flawed 2011 Broncos squad into the postseason, albeit at 8-8. The postseason run was made famous by Tim Tebow's lone stretch of NFL glory; Denver posted a 7-4 record in games in which Tebow started, with a wild-card round victory over Pittsburgh providing the icing on the cake.

Fox and his staff also milked some standout performances, plus the aforementioned Super Bowl, from a Carolina offense quarterbacked by Jake Delhomme. The run game was the star of the show, though, during most of Fox's time with the Panthers which, again, will be music to the ears of the old-school Bears franchise.

Given his experience in the league, Fox will be able to help Pace navigate some critical personnel decisions. Chicago holds a top-10 pick in this year's draft, but before that decisions must be made on several notable free agents (Lance Briggs,Charles Tillman).

There also is that little matter of Jay Cutler's future. Trading him in the coming months will be difficult, but will the Bears try?

Pace has a long road to travel en route back to postseason contention. He covered a lot of ground by nabbing Fox. -- CB


Jim Tomsula, San Francisco 49ers

Grade: D+

One of the most obvious reasons that 49ers GM Trent Baalke and the organization's front office went this route can be found in this quote from OT Joe Staley: "I really honestly don’t think we need a full overhaul," Staley said, via the Press-Democrat. "I don’t think we need to make drastic changes. There are things we need to change as far as mentality, accountability, different things like that. But as far as an overall scheme and huge change, blowing up the place, that doesn’t need to happen. We’ve got the talent and the guys in the locker room to get it done."

If nothing else, Tomsula maintains that level of familiarity. He even served as interim head coach in 2010, bridging the gap from the Mike Singletary regime to Harbaugh.

However, that is Tomsula's only experience at a level above positional coach in the NFL, with his only prior head-coaching stint coming in 2006 for the Rhein Fire of the now-defunct World League of American Football.

Making Tomsula's challenge even tougher -- and tossing a wrench in that whole in-house continuity thing -- is that the staff has to be rebuilt in a hurry. Harbaugh's obviously gone, former offensive coordinator Greg Roman now holds that same post in Buffalo with Rex Ryan in charge, and Fangio likely will walk now as well. Harbaugh also convinced assistant secondary coach Greg Jackson to join him in Ann Arbor.

Will the 49ers be able to successfully make this transition with Tomsula at the helm? Tough to say, because there is very little precedent for a move like the one Tomsula has to pull off here.

There's also the little issue of how exactly any of this makes the 49ers better than they were last season, when their run of three consecutive conference-title trips ended with a disappointing 8-8 finish. NFL teams were lining up for a shot at Harbaugh and Fangio called the shots on a defense that finished second-second-third in points allowed from 2011-13. While he often drew more criticism than his coaching cohorts, Roman also oversaw a top-five offense during that three-year run.

The 49ers' search and their eventual decision appears to point back to Baalke, whose occasionally contentious relationship with Harbaugh paved the way for the latter's departure.

"We've had philosophical discussions and when we sat down we just couldn’t come to a place where we thought moving together, together was the best for either party," 49ers CEO Jed York said in a press conference after Harbaugh's departure was announced. "This wasn't us saying, 'Jim, you’re fired, you're not here anymore.' This wasn't Jim saying, 'I don’t want to be there, I’m leaving.' It was a discussion that took place over a decent amount of time to figure out what’s best for everybody involved. It was the conclusion that we came to, it wasn’t an easy conclusion for anybody, but that’s where we ended up."

The 49ers appeared boxed into a bit of a corner from the outset, with an extreme shortage of proven coaches available. Names like Rex Ryan and Mike Shanahan surfaced as possibilities, along with Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.

That San Francisco opted for Tomsula may be an indication that some players on the roster vouched for their D-line coach. It also, on the surface, hints that Baalke wanted to maintain full control of the personnel decisions. 

"Are we confident that we can replace [Harbaugh]? You always go into that with that strategy," said Baalke at that same press conference. "There’s a lot of good football coaches out there. What we need to do is go out and find a coach that can come in here now and lead this football team.

"We’re not in a rebuild. This isn’t a rebuild situation, this is a reload situation. We’ve got a lot of confidence in this team, the players in that locker room and we’re going to need to make some adjustments."

The 49ers have to cross their fingers that they're as close to resurfacing as a Super Bowl contender as they believe. While a solid nucleus of players remains, key contributors like Frank GoreMichael Crabtree, Chris Culliver and Mike Iupati are set to be free agents. Meanwhile, longtime defensive lineman Justin Smith is considering retirement. 

Is Tomsula up to the task? Was he even the best in-house option available? 

The 49ers will find out those answers in a hurry, all while hoping they don't regret for years the decision to let Harbaugh exit. -- CB

Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders

Grade: B-

It's not that Del Rio is a bad coach per se; he finished with a 68-71 record as the Jags' head coach from 2003 through '11 as that franchise went through a lot of changes, and he was part of a front office that made some very strange decisions, especially with first-round draft choices. Del Rio was part of the shakeup when former Broncos head coach John Fox came to an agreement with management to leave the team, and he had been focusing in on the Raiders job for a while.

Del Rio is not an exceptional head coach, nor is he someone known for defining his programs when it comes to personnel. A one-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played in the NFL from 1985 through '95, Del Rio is better known more as a good motivator than a brilliant overall in-game strategist. General manager Reggie McKenzie will most likely dominate when it comes to personnel in a general sense.

And that's the other question when it comes to this hire -- how far can Del Rio take this team, and how long will it take to make that happen? McKenzie had an outstanding draft in 2014, setting the team up with potential franchise players at quarterback (Derek Carr), linebacker (Khalil Mack), left guard (Gabe Jackson) and defensive tackle (Justin Ellis), but there's still a lot of work to do, especially at the receiver and secondary positions. The Raiders are probably a couple of years away from being competitive.

Del Rio grew up in Hayward, Calif., about 15 miles away from where the Raiders played when he was a kid, and his father would take him to games from time to time. However, he'll have to be cognizant of the fact that these are not those Raiders -- not by a long shot. This is a franchise that has had eight different coaches since Jon Gruden was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2001 season (nine including Del Rio), and they haven't put up a winning season since 2002, when Bill Callahan took a lineup assembled for him to the Super Bowl.

If owner Mark Davis has the patience to wait it out with McKenzie and Del Rio, it's possible that this could be a successful pairing over time. But given the Raiders' recent history, most people will be very much in "wait and see" mode. -- Doug Farrar


Todd Bowles, New York Jets

Grade: A

Bowles spent his last two seasons as the Cardinals' defensive coordinator, working with head coach Bruce Arians, who coached him when Bowles was a defensive back at Temple.

He was hired as the Eagles' secondary coach before the 2012 season, and was promoted to defensive coordinator when Juan Castillo was fired in October. Bowles engineered enough of a comeback that season for Arians to hire him when he became the Cards' head coach before the 2013 season. Bowles' defenses finished second in the NFL in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics in 2013 and seventh in '14. Many believe that the coaching job Bowles did this last season was even more impressive, with the season-ending injury to defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, the departure of linebacker Karlos Dansby to the Browns in free agency and the suspension of linebacker Daryl Washington.

Now, Bowles has a bigger opportunity and it's going to take him a while to get things off the ground. The Jets have a formidable defensive line and good linebackers, but the secondary needs work. On offense, the line is decent, but Geno Smith is still very much a work in progress, and outside of Eric Decker -- whose production dipped precipitously when he went from Peyton Manning throwing him footballs to the Jets' iffy passing game -- there isn't much at the receiver position. Bowles and new general manager Mike Maccagnan, the former Texans director of college scouting who was also hired Tuesday, will have to pay for the mistakes made by former general managers John Idzik and Mike Tannenbaum in the short term. -- DF

Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills

Grade: B

With Marrone opting out of his Buffalo contract on New Year's Eve and Jim Harbaugh off to Michigan, the number of appealing options for Buffalo in its coaching search were limited. 

Ryan wasn't perfect, but his tenure with Jets certainly wasn't boring

Rex Ryan had to be atop the list. Not only does he know this division well -- his matchups against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been nothing short of tantalizing -- but he meshes well with the current Buffalo roster. It has been five years, however, since Ryan produced an above-.500 record, a dismal streak catalyzed by his inability to churn out a consistent offense.

The Bills team awaiting Ryan's arrival resembles his former Jets roster -- that is, the Jets' roster from 2009-'10, which Ryan took to those back-to-back conference championship games. There are far fewer trouble spots in Buffalo than there were, and still are, back in New York.

Of course, the area that helped lead to Ryan's undoing with the Jets -- quarterback -- will be priority No. 1 for Buffalo this offseason. Veteran starter Kyle Ortonopted for retirement following an up-and-down 2014, leaving '13 first-round pick EJ Manuel as the de facto quarterback for the moment. 

Don't plan on Manuel being there for too long. Although the Bills don't have a 2015 first-round draft pick because of last year's trade for WR Sammy Watkins, GM Doug Whaley (who is responsible for that Watkins-inspired roll of the dice) has no choice but to explore all quarterbacking options in the coming months. The draft may not help much, but there are some intriguing free-agent names and guys like Jay Cutler and Nick Foles could find themselves on the trade block. 

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In case any reminder is needed, Ryan's 2009 and '10 Jets teams found their success with one of the soon-to-be free agents, Mark Sanchez, at the helm. Sanchez's subsequent battle with Geno Smith, and then Smith's head-to-head with Michael Vick, proved fruitless. Will the Bills be able to do any better than Manuel vs. a veteran journeyman?

If the answer is yes, then there may not be much separating the Bills from ending their 15-year playoff drought.

They came close in 2014, with Doug Marrone at the helm and the Orton-Manuel combo slogging through at quarterback. Ryan's arrival guarantees that Buffalo will continue to lean on its defense, which finished fourth in both points and yards allowed during the regular season. 

DE Jerry Hughes (10.0 sacks) and LB Brandon Spikes are impending free agents. The rest of the Buffalo defense could return more or less intact, with standout linebacker Kiko Alonso expected back from the ACL injury that cost him the season. Ryan reportedly will retain defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, another outspoken personality but one that proved more of a fit as an assistant than a head coach. 

The challenge of pushing the Bills' offense forward will fall to ex-49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, according to multiple reports. Roman has relied in the past on a run-heavy approach, which pairs well with the talent he will inherit in Buffalo.

How well Roman performs in his offensive-coordinator duties and who his quarterback will be are the variables that will determine how well this Ryan-to-Buffalo marriage works. 

We've already seen Ryan thrive as an NFL head coach with decent quarterback play. We've also seen him falter badly with subpar performances there, especially this past season when the talent-starved Jets defense failed to implement Ryan's usual aggressive scheme with much aplomb. 

Will Ryan's second take as a head coach, under somewhat familiar conditions, be any more of a success? Perhaps not, but the Bills have to be excited about their starting point as Ryan takes charge. -- Chris Burke