Reviewing 2018’s first-year NFL Head Coaches

Before Black Monday arrived, four NFL head coaches had already been fired. Two during the season and two yesterday after Week 17’s concluding games. Today, the Broncos, Bengals, Dolphins and Cardinals (more on them in a moment) joined the Browns, Packers, Jets and Buccaneers in looking for a new head coach.

NFL head coaches
Matt Patricia in 2018” by Louis Briscese is licensed under Public Domain

That means that in 2019 there will be eight teams with new NFL head coaches. That’s a quarter of the league!

For this article, though, we’re going to take a look at how 2018’s seven first-year NFL head coaches fared.

First, a table with the results of those coaches compared to their teams’ records in 2018.

Coach Team 2017 Record Playoffs? 2018 Record Playoffs?
Jon Gruden Raiders 6-10 No 4-12 No
Matt Nagy Bears 5-11 No 12-4 Yes
Matt Patricia Lions 9-7 No 6-10 No
Frank Reich Colts 4-12 No 10-6 Yes
Pat Shurmur Giants 3-13 No 5-11 No
Mike Vrabel Titans 9-7 Yes 9-7 No
Steve Wilks Cardinals 8-8 No 3-13 No

The One-and-Done

After the Cardinals fell five games from 8-8 to 3-13, management decided to move on from Wilks, hired away from the Panthers at the end of last year. While the team plummeted, it wasn’t entirely Wilks’ fault. His general manager, Steve Keim, should’ve been the one to take the fall. The roster Keim handed Wilks was bad from the beginning. After a slow start, Wilks made the wise decision to move on from veteran quarterback Sam Bradford in order to develop rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, the no. 10 pick in the draft last year.

It’s doubtful the Cardinals would’ve finished much better with Bradford playing the entire year (something he’s rarely done), but Wilks’ fate was sealed when Arizona secured the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.

Simply put, Wilks was put into a no-win situation and got a raw deal out of it.

 

The Setbacks

Last year, the Lions moved on from Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 finish that found them just outside the playoffs. General manager Bob Quinn, who had previously worked for New England, hired the Patriots’ defensive coordinator to replace Caldwell and to get the Lions over the hump.

Instead, under Patricia, the Lions regressed, finishing 2018 with a 6-10 record. That put them last in the NFC North. Patricia managed to avoid Caldwell’s fate. That was mainly because he’s Quinn’s choice, whereas Quinn inherited Caldwell from the previous regime. Both Patricia and Quinn will now be under enormous pressure to not only produce a winning record in 2019, but to also make the playoffs.

Every year there seems to be a surprise firing. This year’s is up for debate between Marvin Lewis, who had been with the Bengals for 16 years, and Adam Gase, who just finished his third season with the Dolphins with a 23-25 record and one playoff appearance.

But there was no question as to last year’s surprise. The Titans, after defeating the Chiefs before falling to the Patriots in the playoffs, fired Mike Mularkey after just two full seasons as the head coach. They replaced him with Mike Vrabel.

While Vrabel’s first Titans squad finished with the same record as Mularkey’s last, the difference is stark. The former missed the playoffs, while the latter made it.

Now, I doubt Vrabel will be under the amount of pressure in 2019 that’s surely to face Patricia, yet he’ll face some. After all, he replaced the man who led the Titans to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season, was handed a talented roster, and then couldn’t match the results.

 

Nudging Upward

After face-planting in 2017, the Giants hired Pat Shurmur away from the Vikings. He’d been the offensive coordinator there the previous two seasons. In 2017, relying mainly on Case Keenum, Shurmur somehow managed the no. 10 ranked offense in Minnesota. That team would make it to the NFC Championship.

When he got to New York, he inherited two-time Super Bowl winning, but aged, Eli Manning. In the draft, the Giants passed up taking a young quarterback to sit and learn behind Manning, instead opting for start running back Saquon Barkley. They also added left tackle Nate Solder in free agency before signing fan-favorite wide receiver Odell Beckham to an extension.

All told, the Giants improved from 3-13 to 5-11.

Still, the trajectory is right. It will be interesting to see what the Giants do in the draft with the No. 6 pick. It’ll be especially interesting with Oregon’s Justin Herbert, rumored to be the top quarterback in the draft, returning to school. Will the Giants still go with a QB in the first round? If so, who? If not, will they grab one later, hoping for better growth than the likes of Kyle Lauletta?

 

The Implosion

Two years ago, the Oakland Raiders made the playoffs after going 12-4. But with quarterback Derek Carr injured, they fell in the Wild Card round. Last year, after regressing to 6-10, owner Mark Davis fired head coach Jack Del Rio in favor of hiring Jon Gruden, who hadn’t coached in a decade.

Gruden started off things by trading the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, to the Bears. Later, during the season, he traded wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cowboys. After that, with the team faltering, Davis fired general manager Reggie McKenzie.

The Raiders did not look good, and maybe that was the point, as Davis and Gruden (and now new general manager, Mike Mayock) prepare for a future in Sin City. It looks like the Raiders’ power brokers are taking a page out of the Rams’ recent playbook. Burn it to the ground in the old city before rising from the ashes as a contender in the new one.

Easier said than done.

But, hey: Gruden has nine years left on his deal. So he’s got the time.

 

The Playoff NFL Head Coaches

Hat tips to both Frank Reich of the Colts and Matt Nagy of the Bears. These two were the best first year NFL head coaches. Both took over abysmal squads and turned them into playoff teams. Heck, Nagy’s Bears even won the NFC North.

Both of these coaches overcame some adversity to get where they are. Let’s start in Chicago.

The Bears last made the playoffs during the 2010 season under Lovie Smith. That was three NFL head coaches ago. Between 2011-2017, Chicago finished above .500 only once. In the 2017 NFL Draft, general manager Ryan Pace selected the draft’s first quarterback. And it wasn’t Patrick Mahomes II (who went No. 10) or Deshaun Watson (who went No. 12). Instead, with the No. 3 pick, Pace selected North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a one-year starter for the Tar Heels.

After a 5-11 2017 under John Fox in which the offense was 29th in points and 30th in yards, that pick looked to a bust. But under Nagy, the former Chiefs offensive coordinator, Trubisky turned it around. Of course, he was aided by several key offensive weapons. The Bear’s defense, a top-10 unit last year, also helped. They finished No. 1 in points and No. 3 in yards.

The situation in which Reich found himself was just bizarre. He won a Super Bowl ring as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator last year, and only landed the Colts job because Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pulled out in the 11th hour. Reich then found himself stuck with several key staff members hired to work with McDaniels.

Yet, somehow Reich made it work. That “somehow” is mainly the Comeback Player of the Year favorite, quarterback Andrew Luck. With Lucks’ return and the shrewd drafting of guard Quentin Nelson, the Colts’ offense improved from No. 30 in points and No. 31 in yards to No. 5 in points and No. 7 in yards.

Not to be overlooked, the revamped defense also improved. They went from No. 30 in both points and yards allowed to No. 10 in points and No. 11 in yards.

While the Colts didn’t win the AFC South, the six-game improvement, topped off with a victory in last night’s win-or-go-home game against division rival Tennessee, gets the Colts back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Expect Nagy and Reich to receive plenty of deserved consideration as the best NFL head coaches this season. They’ll be in the Coach of the Year running.

They’ve also set the bar for whoever lands one of the eight current openings for NFL head coaches for the 2019 season.

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