Grading Every 2021 NFL Head Coach Hire

With all seven NFL head coaching jobs now filled, it’s time to take on the perilous task of trying to assess how well each team did.
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Second only to immediately grading draft picks, grading coaching hires before a single offseason workout or legal team meeting is the most perilous assignment of the football media cycle. There is a lot we don’t know and a lot that even the people who know these people don’t know. For example, did we think that out of all the new hires last offseason, it would be Kevin Stefanski who would most successfully take a virtual offseason in stride and utilize a series of trivia contests and group therapy sessions to galvanize a star-studded roster over Zoom?

Did we think Joe Judge would emerge as the class’s darling rather than being seen as a consolation prize after failing to land Matt Rhule? Did we think that, of all the new hires, the most immediately embattled would be Mike McCarthy, a coach who has won a Super Bowl?

The point is, like the draft, there are a lot of immediate thoughts based on who we’re told and who we observe to be ready. But you are never ready to be a head coach in the NFL. The position exposes the depths of your personality and preparation unlike any position in the sport. So, with that in mind let’s give it a whirl, but let’s also show our work in an effort to be transparent.

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New York Jets: Robert Saleh

I’ve said this before, but I believe Saleh brings all the good energy of the Rex Ryan era without the side effects. Essentially, the green tea version of Ryan. That is the emotional component of it. Yes, Saleh had an excellent defensive roster and a complementary offense in San Francisco, but he also had to wrangle a defense of gigantic personalities. You don’t simply get someone like Richard Sherman on board without having a strong, requisite knowledge of your scheme and where it's headed. His “All Gas, No Brakes” slogan served as the motivational underpinning of the 49ers roster that made the Super Bowl.

The other slice of the A grade is the fact that he managed to peel Mike LaFleur away from Shanahan, who clung tightly to both of his top offensive assistants. Introducing that system to Sam Darnold, or utilizing it to lure Deshaun Watson out of Houston, is a massive part of this equation.

GRADE: A

Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Staley

I think it is O.K. to love a hire but also not like the circumstances through which it happened. As my colleague Jenny Vrentas pointed out on last week’s edition of The Weak-Side podcast, so much of the reason L.A. was considered a top destination this offseason was because of things that were put in place by ousted head coach Anthony Lynn (including Lynn’s own hand in the progress of Justin Herbert).

That said, I wrote in early December that Staley was the next Sean McVay, just on the defensive side of the ball. He is a former offensive player who devoured the most effective defensive scheme in football and calibrated it to a historic Rams unit that carried the team in 2020. Staley is the kind of buy-low, buy-early proposition that we prod more ownership groups to make. Like McVay and the Rams, the Chargers had to choose between nabbing Staley now or getting in a much longer line next year.

GRADE: A-

Atlanta Falcons: Arthur Smith

Smith is going to return Atlanta to its most successful offensive system in the Matt Ryan era. The former Titans offensive coordinator has perfected the wide-zone system that Kyle Shanahan has repopularized throughout the NFL. If Atlanta was going to rebuild, Smith would probably not be the kind of organizational catalyst right for the task of, say, eventually trading Ryan and Julio Jones and reaping the available capital. He is in the perfect position to inject some offensive competence right away and get the Falcons to a place where they can compete in a division that has (likely) lost Drew Brees.

Before the news of a Deshaun Watson trade hits, I would put Smith in the pole position for coach of the year frontrunner, given the ceiling of the roster and how quickly he should be able to turn the offense around.

Grade: B+

Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer

This hire brings on some complicated feelings. Meyer has been flirting with top NFL jobs for years now and finally decided to leap in headfirst once he was assured a trove of cap space and the greatest quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. On one hand, it makes a lot of sense. Meyer’s last team, Ohio State, has functioned seamlessly (on the field) since his exit. He has the ability to foster and develop a good staff, but an obvious blind side when it comes to the actions of those staffers off the field—an important criticism that should not simply be left on the roadside. I think programs should lean more collegiately anyway. It makes sense to have a team that can develop young players faster, and thus become less reliant on complicated long-term veteran contracts.

Meyer has an ability to surround himself with innovators and with the wide net his brand name is able to cast, is more likely to draw top schematic talent that will help Trevor Lawrence blossom.

The drawback here is that Jacksonville is taking the gamble at a turning point in franchise history. That, and the staff he is assembling right now is not one that overwhelms off the bat. If you’re Lawrence and you have the choice between, say, Darrell Bevel and Brian Daboll or Eric Bieniemy, who would you bet the direction of your career on? There are coordinators and coaches out there with better and more proven track records developing NFL talent. The same can be said for general managers and their track record of responsibly allocating large amounts of space. Right now, Jacksonville is wagering a lot of faith on the Meyer brand.

GRADE: B

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Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Sirianni

The Eagles, like the Steelers, seem to have a pattern for what they want in a head coach. While Pittsburgh likes defensive coordinators in their early to mid-thirties, the Eagles seem to like untapped potential on offense, often hiring young coordinators or position coaches before they blossom into known commodities as sole play-callers, like Andy Reid once upon a time. Sirianni has the added benefit of working with Frank Reich, who was an instrumental piece of Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run and comes in with a playbook on how to work with the embattled Carson Wentz. Sirianni seems to be assembling a solid coaching staff that includes the critical retention of offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and the plucking of Florida offensive coordinator Brian Johnson to coach quarterbacks.

My lingering question here is whether Sirianni can adequately navigate what could become a messy roster deconstruction. The Eagles are going to fundamentally change and, in the process, lose a lot of the locker room’s soul. Can he grab hold of the young core and galvanize them moving forward?

GRADE: B-

Detroit Lions: Dan Campbell

It was difficult not to emerge from Campbell’s introductory press conference a little more fired up than we came in. However, the most exciting aspect of his coaching tenure so far seems to be a willingness to diversify his staff and provide high-profile jobs to minority candidates who were thought to either need “seasoning” or were not deemed ready for the role. Having Anthony Lynn as a full-time offensive coordinator is a win, especially if they end up developing a young starter at QB. Having Aaron Glenn as a defensive coordinator is a win.

I’m assuming the Lions are betting on Campbell’s ability to have a Mike Vrabel–esque presence on the team while his coordinators do a lot of the heavy lifting schematically. And while Vrabel is great, we will see what the Titans look like now that Smith will be coaching in Atlanta. Will that be an enduring fad?

Campbell may have scared some fans off with his Wild West routine at his opening press conference, but if he is able to invest in the kind of players who buy into that type of hokum, the Lions may quickly carve themselves into something of an annoying divisional road block for the NFC North’s bluebloods. That is far more than we can say about the Lions under Matt Patricia.

GRADE: C+

Houston Texans: David Culley

I think it’s important to separate the hire from the situation momentarily, even if it's difficult to understate just how much of a fractured mess the Texans are now. They are operating like a driver's ed car that has not only a secondary set of brakes, but a few additional steering wheels and gas pedals, too. The owner may run a franchise that players do not want to play for, but that does not mean the coach they hired was bad. Culley, who is 65, has been in the NFL since 1994. He primarily coached wide receivers but has stints as a quarterback coach and as Baltimore’s passing-game coordinator. Houston, after exhausting all of its initial options, seemed to home in on older coaches with a great deal of experience versus a first-time head coach. If you are general manager Nick Caserio, you must decide what kind of voice resonates the most with a clearly dejected locker room. He gambled on a soft spoken, longtime Andy Reid tree lieutenant to get it done.

I think Culley is a good coach. My issue here is that the Texans will likely stockpile a trove of draft picks if they trade Watson. Will they take input from Culley on how to spend that capital? Or are they just forcing him out there to take the brunt of the criticism while they build the team they actually want to build behind the scenes, dealing Watson and possibly J.J. Watt in the process?

Should the reported coaching structure come together that involves Lovie Smith on defense and Josh McCown as an ascending, coach-in-waiting type on offense, the hire is easier to digest over the long haul, even if those kinds of discussions aren’t necessarily fair to Culley.

GRADE: D+