Inside AFC South: Head Coaching Pros & Cons

John Shipley

When it comes to head coaches, the AFC South is an example of complete continuity in 2020. All four teams are returning their head coaches next season, which is the same four coaches who have been manning the sidelines of the division since 2018. 

While some were surprised to see the Jaguars retain head coach Doug Marrone, who has been at the team's helm since 2017, the other three coaches are all on relatively safe ground. Bill O'Brien has helped develop Deshaun Watson and turn the Texans into a perennial AFC South force, while Mike Vrabel led the Titans to an AFC Championship performance in 2019. Frank Reich and the Colts took a step backward from 2018, but there is no question Reich is the man for the job in Indianapolis. 

So, what are the ultimate makeups of these coaches in terms of strengths and weaknesses? To find the answer, we spoke with each AFC South publisher in the Maven network.

Jacksonville

Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone has been in a strange spot in each of his three seasons as the shot-caller of Jacksonville's sidelines. While the team's leader on game days, Marrone's role was somewhat minimized by the looming presence of former executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, who was fired in December. While Marrone roamed the sidelines, everyone — including the locker room — knew it was Coughlin's team.

But it was perhaps due to Coughlin's occasionally overbearing role that Marrone was able to grow as a leader of Jacksonville's roster. As things fell apart in both the Jaguars' locker room and front office last season, the players constantly referred to Marrone's ability to keep the team together and on one page as impressive. Despite things going wrong at nearly every turn, the players simply backed their head coach, with most stating publicly they wanted him to return as coach in 2020.

While Marrone grew as a leader, however, there is still a question of how innovative the Jaguars can be when it comes to adapting on Sundays. Jacksonville was one of the league's worst first-half teams last season, scoring the 31st-most points and averaging just barely over seven points per first half. When a team struggles out of the gate as much as the Jaguars have, it's fair to question the effectiveness of the game planning and coaching that takes place in the days leading up to the game.

Marrone will have 2020 to prove to Jacksonville's ownership that he deserves to be the team's long-term head coach. To do so successfully, he will once again have to push all the right buttons when it comes to players, but he'll also have to figure out a way to get the Jaguars off to faster starts.

-- John Shipley, JaguarReport

Tennessee

Coach Mike Vrabel has shown in his first two seasons that he trusts his players and expects that they will deliver in critical moments.

It is an approach that inspires loyalty and enthusiasm throughout the roster. It also leads to some head-scratching moments.

Even Vrabel had to take a step back and reevaluate his decision-making last season after he eschewed a field-goal attempt that could have given his team a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter of a Week 4 game at Atlanta. Instead, he elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons’ 10. The attempt failed and Atlanta’s high-powered offense had the time and the opportunity to get back in the game (Tennessee ultimately won 24-10).

Four weeks later, he called for a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from the Buccaneers’ 28 with just under four minutes to play and the Titans ahead by four. All-Pro punter Brett Kern got blown up on the play, which was stopped for no gain, and Tampa Bay got an opportunity to drive for a go-ahead touchdown (Tennessee held on and won 27-23).

The common thread is that Vrabel seeks opportunities to deliver a figurative knockout punch – a moment that all but guarantees victory.

It is an aggressive and exciting philosophy. It’s also one fraught with risk. In 2018 against the L.A. Chargers in London, for example, he elected to go for two with 35 seconds to play rather than kick a PAT that would have tied the score and forced overtime. That play failed and Tennessee lost 20-19.

Chances are, it will cost the Titans more games going forward, but Vrabel believes that – on balance – it is worth it.

-- David Boclair, AllTitans

Houston

The longest-tenured head coach in the AFC South is the Texans’ Bill O'Brien, who is entering his seventh season, and now he has a new title as general manager. O'Brien has helped run the team's day-to-day operation with Jack Easterby and has moved to two new coordinators to call plays in 2020 with Tim Kelly on offense and Anthony Weaver on defense.

O'Brien has always been able to win games despite not having some of his best rosters. Outside of a 2017 season with only four wins due to injuries, O'Brien has been a nine-win coach every season with 21 regular-season wins over the last two seasons.

There is a sense of pride about the Texans winning the AFC South, but with every team in the division having made an appearance in the AFC championship except for O'Brien's Texans, the questions arise about if he is a good enough coach in the playoffs.

There is way more disdain for O'Brien, especially after trading All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins coupled with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round after being up 24-0. The fans' morale about O'Brien is low.

The Texans' ownership is backing O'Brien, which means more than anything at this point.

-- State of the Texans

Indianapolis

When the Colts started 1-5 in 2018, head coach Frank Reich’s poise and confidence kept the team together, especially after he earned the players’ respect by going for it on fourth down in his own end of an overtime loss to Houston. Nine wins in 10 games and a first-round road playoff victory over the division champion Texans assured the Colts had the right man for the job.

Reich and general manager Chris Ballard get a pass for what happened in 2019 because nobody expected franchise quarterback Andrew Luck to retire in preseason. As much as any team can be prepared for such a seismic shift, the Colts still managed to start 5-2 with quarterback Jacoby Brissett. A road win at eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City was the highlight. Ballard warned not to count his team out. Reich had the locker room believing anything was possible, even without Luck.

That it fell apart due to a spate of injuries, missed kicks, and Brissett’s inability to throw the ball down the field, which overshadowed the team’s resiliency. The Colts faltered to 7-9, but were 5-6 in one-score games, so reaching the playoffs for a second consecutive season wasn’t impossible.

As is often the case with any players’ coach, Reich has faith in players to a fault. That might be his only negative. He’s calm under pressure, an excellent play-caller, and isn’t afraid to go for it on fourth down. But in at least three games last year, he got conservative and played it safe by not being overly aggressive before settling for fourth-quarter field-goal tries. It worked once, but didn’t pan out the other two times.

In a season that started out with everyone saying the Luck-less Colts had fallen to the bottom in the NFL, a few judgment calls are easily overlooked. Perhaps these will prove to be growing pains that make a coach better in the future. The Colts are confident they have the right man for a job that Josh McDaniels reneged on taking. As Reich reiterated when he was hired, the former longtime NFL backup quarterback conceded it wasn’t the first time that he was second choice. 

There hasn’t been much second-guessing of Reich, but the Colts haven’t won the division since 2014 and have missed the playoffs in four of five seasons. Reich and Ballard know they need to win — that’s why the coach convinced his GM to take a $25-million gamble on quarterback Philip Rivers for 2020. If Rivers is able to return to past glory, the move solidifies a rebuilding organization and further validates Reich and Ballard.

-- Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts

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