Matt Rhule and Joe Judge Hirings Cap Off a Wild Day on the NFL Coaching Carousel

The only team left head coach-less? The Cleveland Browns, who are in a great position to make the hire they want.
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When it comes to instantly analyzing NFL head coaching searches, let us all remember this rule (hereby dubbed the Doug Pederson-Frank Reich rule): There is a candidate in every cycle who, for some reason, we all collectively believe will be a home run for some vague and ultimately senseless reason that has been peddled and sold to us by some shadowy forces with something to gain. Then, there are perfectly fine, overlooked candidates with a wealth of experience who we mindlessly criticize because they do not possess a certain panache.

The chaotic moments surrounding the Panthers hire of Baylor head coach Matt Rhule and the Giants’ hiring of Patriots special teams coordinator/wide receivers coach Joe Judge may get us there again. The Judge hire, announced in the immediate wake of the splashier Rhule hire, is decidedly unsexy, and the NFL Network tidbit that Rhule—who was born in Manhattan and raised three hours west in State College, Penn.—gave the Giants a chance to match a significant seven-year deal worth up to $70 million but they declined, leaves us all to believe that the Giants are a technology-averse dumpster fire and the Panthers are a forward-thinking tech startup poised to throttle the NFL.

In all likelihood, neither will be completely true and both will be dependent on how the organization ultimately adapts to and supports each coach’s unique vision. But that doesn’t mean what happened today won’t cause seismic waves throughout professional football.

Let’s jump into what it all means…

Matt Rhule

• First: Pause for moment and think about the optics of the league’s head coaching fraternity as it stands: There are now four minority head coaches (Ron Rivera, Anthony Lynn, Brian Flores and Mike Tomlin). Two years after the Raiders made a mockery of the Rooney Rule by nakedly expressing their multi-year pursuit of television analyst Jon Gruden without any repercussion, we’re no closer to seeing teams embody the spirit of the rule created by the former Steelers owner Dan Rooney. A year after Roger Goodell stood at the lectern and announced his plan to freshen the long-ignored minority coaching pipeline, qualified candidates like Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, Bills defensive coordinator (and former Vikings head coach) Leslie Frasier, Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards, Kris Richard and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have been largely ignored or passed over. In Saleh’s case, no team seems to be willing to wait another week for him. 

There is a large segment of the league’s fan base who could see someone like Judge, a non-playcaller who rose through the typically obscure special teams pipeline, getting a job before Bieniemy or Leftwich or Saleh as particularly egregious. Without a proper and nuanced enforcement of the Rooney Rule, Goodell will continue to battle the perception that the NFL’s majority white ownership group either consciously or unconsciously prefers head coaching candidates who look like they do.

• An interesting note here from Chris Mortensen, who talked about the Panthers’ investment in Rhule and how they handled the college buyout money from Baylor. This entire process felt like the recruitment of a college coach, including, reportedly, promised investments in facility upgrades and sports science departments. The more the league continues to blend with college, the more teams will face the pressures that Carolina did to land a name like Rhule. 

This is important: Regardless of whether or not Rhule succeeds, this is a good thing. For years, owners have been able to hire quality candidates merely by existing as one of the 32 available opportunities. Certain franchises—cough, Washington, Cincinnati, cough—seem to glide along knowing that they can fill in the required pieces by default. Other franchises, like Philadelphia, Baltimore, New England, Seattle and San Francisco make necessary upgrades and invest in player-friendly amenities in order to stay competitive.

• I think, oddly, the Browns are in a phenomenal position to make a great hire. They are under no competition for any of the remaining top assistants still in the playoffs and can wait them out. The only fear, obviously, will be the accumulation of a top support staff. Saleh, Bieniemy, Kevin Stefanski, Greg Roman, Wink Martindale, Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur can operate as normal during the playoffs without believing they’ll need to force a second interview during a chaotic time. If the Browns are going the Josh McDaniels route, they now have a little bit more time to clean up their own internal issues that may have been impeding the hire (or previous hires) to begin with.

• What does Judge’s departure say about the Patriots? If Belichick again loses his top lieutenants (McDaniels and Judge) it will be fascinating to see him reorganize the staff which has taken on a bare bones feel of late. Former receivers coach Chad O’Shea is back on the market after being let go by the Dolphins, but again, Belichick faces the long slog of grooming, promoting and empowering talent. At this point losing McDaniels would be notable because he has for so long had command of a large portion of the game plan.

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