Winners and Losers of the NFL Head Coaching Carousel

With the news that Kevin Stefanski will be the Browns' next head coach, all of the NFL's vacant head spots are filled. What can we learn from looking at the coaching movements as a whole?
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Have you ever noticed that every year, with stunning consistency, the NFL’s new head coaching hires are asked at their opening press conference for their thoughts on the current roster they’ve inherited? And every year, they all punt on the chance to address it, even though at least part of their interview was (hopefully) dedicated to laying out how they might accentuate the pieces they’ll inevitably have to deal with in the upcoming year?

Rising coordinators and position coaches will use the excuse that they were too focused on their own team to make a reliable assessment. New Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy will say that he kind of made up the fact that he watched every play of the previous season during his time off (no really, listen to McCarthy’s answer here and wait for Jerry Jones’s uncomfortable laughter).

So, we’re led to believe that the real work for these coaches is only just beginning. And while this might seem like a difficult time to assess this year’s coaching cycle, we, unlike 2020’s incoming class of new head coaches, are not afraid of a little instant analysis. There is plenty of information we have at our disposal that, regardless of how their early tenures play out, will still have far-reaching effects down the road.

In that spirit, here are the winners and losers of the 2020 NFL coaching carousel...

John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan, Jed York

Jed York (right) at a 2017 press conference with GM John Lynch (left) and head coach Kyle Shanahan (middle).

WINNERS

Jed York, owner, San Francisco 49ers

Even if the league is cyclical and the current “trendy” ideas are simply dolled-up versions of past successes, York’s popularized (or maybe re-popularized) model of hiring a coach and general manager on matching contracts has been become standard operating procedure. When he installed Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch on matching six-year contracts, the length of the deal was at least a year longer than most traditional contracts; that showed how York recognized a fix would take time, and that the coach and general manager would operate with their fates tied together.

So often in football, owners allow themselves to submit to a broken decision loop when it comes to firing and hiring coaches and personnel executives. Maybe the general manager is politicking behind closed doors and makes the owner believe that the players are good but the plays being called are bad. Maybe the coach makes the owner believe that the scheme and culture are good but the talent is bad. This creates an unquestionably poisonous environment. 

Since the 49ers tied Shanahan and Lynch together, we’ve seen teams make a more aggressive push to either bring in a coach and general manager together, bring in a coach on a longer contract than the standard four- or five-year deals or allow a new coach to make significant alterations to the organizational structure early in their tenure.

The other side of this? It looks like York will end up keeping Robert Saleh, Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur, who all had head-coaching inquiries during this cycle. One of the brightest young staffs in football remains intact for 2020 after (at least) a trip to the NFC title game this season.

Joe Judge, head coach, New York Giants and Matt Rhule, head coach, Carolina Panthers

Both owners, whether with their actions or words, have pledged patience with their noticeably unorthodox hires. Giants owner John Mara—who, in the years following Tom Coughlin’s departure, has failed to secure a head coach that has made it longer than two seasons—said that the organization would give Judge a wider breadth in which to operate. David Tepper in Carolina has no choice, given the length of Rhule’s deal (seven years) and the inevitable monetary investment he’ll make in upgrading the program to Rhule’s liking.

This is not an endorsement for either candidate, but merely an acknowledgement of job security, which is rare for any NFL head coach. Another bonus for both new coaches: They will both likely survive any sort of house cleaning during an early struggle. The Giants and Panthers have Dave Gettleman and Marty Hurney, respectively, who have already survived various shakeups and likely would not get the benefit of the doubt if the team struggled again and needed to make a change.

Another thing to consider: Both owners are heavily invested from an optics perspective. This is Tepper’s first major hire after firing the popular and well-respected Ron Rivera, and he will do what he can to legitimize the decision. For Mara, it is a hire made against the grain after two previously unsuccessful hires. The Giants opted not to kick the tires on Rhule and moved quickly on Judge due to a concern over losing him to Mississippi State. Letting Judge go after two unsuccessful seasons would be a public relations disaster.

Cleveland Browns

An industrious troll would be able to dig through the internet archives and find some version of me praising the Browns for every hire they’ve made dating back to Mike Pettine.

The franchise has made good decisions before. They employed Kyle Shanahan and John DeFillipo. Sashi Brown’s plan was the correct one. The problem has always been a toxic culture from beyond the management level, often leaving multiple power players in a scramble to have their ideas heard.

The Browns did two things right during this process: They chose one executive path (Paul Depodesta’s vision over John Dorsey’s vision; again, not endorsing one plan over the other, but simply acknowledging that they chose one instead of allowing both to live in a nebulous and uncomfortable atmosphere). And they were patient in their coaching search and waited out the playoffs, which gave them a shot at a better coach without the pressure of racing against the other four franchises with openings. Say what you will about Kevin Stefanski, but he has incorporated some elements into a traditionally stodgy Vikings offense that we’ll see copied throughout football over the coming years.

Will Stefanski succeed? Who knows. If the organization’s previous history is any indication, that’s a tough bet to make. But every repetition in the batter’s box is another swing for Jimmy Haslam and, at some point, one of these infinite cultures and schemes and ideas and roster construction variants have to align, producing a playoff contender.

John Mara, co-owner, New York Giants

Giants fans complain about Mara much in the way a teenager complains about its parents; the kind of empty rage that often overlooks the fact that, hey, the guy is actually trying to make decisions that are for your betterment. With as many distant, ice-blooded owners as there are in the league -- the kind of people who would ship the franchise to Poland if it meant finding a better tax break, or cutting your favorite coach if it meant saving them enough money to refinish their cruise liner -- it always amazed me how much unhappiness is reserved for someone who cares.

With that in mind, his whiffs on Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur put him against a wall and there was probably a good deal of pressure to select a candidate who would be a safer bet (whatever that means, as you’ll read below, maybe something similar to what Jerry Jones did with Mike McCarthy). Instead, Mara picked a special teams coordinator and one-year wide receivers coach, who has a great reputation among players as a hands-on technician.

I personally think Judge impressed not because of his vague complements to the New York and New Jersey area but because he demonstrated some blueprint as to how he’s going to actually teach players.

Outside of the rise in analytics, the new (ish) frontier in the NFL is exploring how we learn and digest information. There are good coaches as low as the NAIA level getting promoted rapidly for tracking the different ways to reach their players. Judge touched on that during his press conference and likely delved deeper into that during his time with Gettleman, Mara and the rest of the Giants’ power structure.

I would look past the “we’re going to punch everyone in the face” comments and read more into a smart coach who will balance out the “running = championships” mindset in their front office.

Mike McCarthy, Jerry Jones

LOSERS

Mike McCarthy, head coach, Dallas Cowboys

This is not to say that Mike McCarthy was a bad hire for Dallas; I think that is up in the air. But unlike Judge or Rhule, McCarthy is entering a situation where there is no runway for him to develop. The Cowboys need to succeed right away.

For Jerry Jones to let go of Jason Garrett, he had to believe that he could secure a coach who would immediately maximize the talent on Dallas’ roster. As we’ve noted, that might be more difficult than initially thought. The rest of the division is getting better. Ezekiel Elliott will continue to level off. Amari Cooper is likely gone in free agency. The same can be said for some of their better defensive players. Dak Prescott is about to cost north of $36 million per season.

The NFL

We talked about this a week ago in a previous coaching column, but Roger Goodell’s yearly Super Bowl address will be won or lost depending on how he handles the growing minority coaching crisis on his hands.

As USA Today noted on Sunday, 17 of the last 20 hires have been white. Two of the most recent African American coaches hired—Vance Joseph (Denver Broncos) and Steve Wilks (Arizona Cardinals)—were fired after just three combined seasons. Jim Caldwell was fired in Detroit and replaced with a coach, Matt Patricia, who has won nine games over his first two seasons (Caldwell had won nine games in each of his last two seasons).

Perhaps some of the initiatives the league introduced last year will take a longer period to develop. However, the problem has reached a point where the league will either have to ignore it altogether and risk the growing disenchantment, anger, apathy or however you would like to describe the current feeling among minority coaches who no longer see a path to the top of the profession, or confront it like the serious issue it is.

Penny-hoarding owners

I don’t think the Carolina Panthers paying Matt Rhule a small fortune is as ridiculous as people are making it seem. However the more we learn about typically-concealed coaching salaries, the more teams hiring new coaches will have to adjust their scale. 

Think about what the last two years have done to adjust what we believe about traditional head-coaching pay: Jon Gruden was signed to a 10-year, $100 million contract by the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders, and Matt Rhule, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, got a deal that could be worth up to $70 million over the next seven years.

If that is the case, what do those numbers do for someone who has won a Super Bowl in the last decade or has produced consistent winning seasons? Mike McCarthy was believed to be making more in Green Bay than Jason Garrett was at the end of his Cowboys deal, so did Jerry Jones have to increase his offer?

Here’s a positive: The higher these salaries climb, the more owners might be hesitant to let a coach go after two seasons given that most of these contracts are fully guaranteed, or at least mostly guaranteed. What was easier to do at $4-5 million per season may be more difficult at $10 million.

Josh McDaniels

McDaniels will be a good head-coaching candidate at some point but his selectiveness may soon bundle into the troubling optics already surrounding his candidacy. Here’s what I mean: Pushing away the Browns because their front office is a mess and you wouldn’t be the preferred choice of the most influential voice in the organization is probably the right decision: . But when bundled with the fact that he bailed on the Colts, there may be some owners in future seasons who wonder whether it would be worth their time to bring McDaniels in for an interview.

While the Browns were patient this time around, it’s not often you find a team willing to wait out half the playoffs to get the person they want. Most coaching searches are dead sprints and time precious. Do you spend that time with someone who will make the process more complicated? 

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.