Head Coach Hiring Grades
By Tayyib Abu
The music has stopped. Seven NFL teams were searching for a new leader this offseason, and every head coaching chair has finally been taken. Now is the time to examine each hire, look at what each new coach might bring to their new team, and ponder on any concerns…
Atlanta Falcons: Arthur Smith
The Falcons opted for Arthur Smith. The former Titans offensive coordinator arrives in Atlanta after two stellar years in Tennessee. Smith designed a superb offense that got the best from Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill, unleashing their star running back with a brilliant zone-blocking scheme. It was simple yet incredibly effective. In Atlanta, Smith will have elite weapons to work with on offense. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst could excel if Smith employs a successful play-action game.
A lot of that will depend on Todd Gurley.
The former Rams back experienced the worst rushing year of his career in 2020. Gurley’s explosive burst looks gone, and he has difficulty breaking tackles. Smith must determine whether Gurley can still perform or not. To aid this, one thing Smith must alter is an offensive line that ranked 28th in run-block success. If Gurley is past his best, the offensive line must improve to assist the running game. It will be a stern test of Smith’s tactical acumen if he needs to create an offense without a functioning run-game.
Defensively, veteran coordinator Dean Pees is on board with Smith. Pees, who worked opposite Smith in Tennessee as DC, is a respected voice that understands how to lead locker rooms; something invaluable for a rookie head coach. Pees likes to operate out of a 3-4 formation, although last time he was in the NFL his defense ran out of nickel over 70% of the time. That suggests that the defense requires a significant retooling – it finished 32nd in passing yardage allowed and 28th in total yardage surrendered. Atlanta primarily worked out of a 4-3 formation; if Pees is to build the defense he likes, it will take time. Cornerback Caleb Farley could be in play for Atlanta with the fourth overall pick. This side of the ball needs a major rebuild; it will take time.
Arthur Smith is a smart x’s and o man and clearly understands how to maximise an offense. It could take time for him to get acclimated in his new role, making his hiring of Dean Pees a shrewd move. Hiring Smith looks a wise decision by The Falcons, but 2021 may have to be sacrificed.
Detroit Lions: Dan Campbell
The Detroit Lions stated that they wanted a leader of men. And after his ferocious press conference, Dan Campbell might be that man. The former Lion returns home, and it is clear how passionate he is for this team and the city of Detroit. After one press conference, Campbell had Detroit natives ready to run through 20 brick walls.
Campbell has already hired former Chargers coach Anthony Lynn as offensive coordinator. That is a smart choice as Lynn provides head coaching experience to complement Campbell. He also has experience of working with young quarterbacks or bridge quarterbacks. With Matthew Stafford on the move*, Lynn is a wise pickup for Dan Campbell. Lynn ran a run-heavy offense in Buffalo, then strayed to a pass-heavy offense at the Chargers. With Duce Staley coming in as running back coach, it should bode well for D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson.
Defensively Aaron Glenn comes from New Orleans to be the coordinator. It is unfair to expect him to turn around the defense in one year. The Lions 2020 defense was the worst in franchise history, and that says a lot. The group lacks blue-chip talent or game-wreckers, and needs a massive overhaul. Glenn will utilise a base 4-3 formation with a single high safety. The previous head coach liked that same defense. However, Glenn comes from New Orleans, where they love to dial up pressure. Trey Hendrickson enjoyed a career year; he could be a free agent Detroit thinks about to aid the ailing pass rush. As a former cornerback, Glenn should be able to develop Jeff Okudah. The former Ohio State man needs a bounce-back year after an underwhelming rookie season.
Dan Campbell ticked every box that the Lions wanted. The risk is he’s inexperienced, and will the players respond to him? Campbell has made smart hires, and the front office is assembling like The Avengers. A fan favourite at the helm with plenty of passion marries well with this blue collar city. So far so good, but there is a lot to be proved and a ton of work to be done.
*Update: The Lions have traded Matthew Stafford to The Los Angeles Rams for a 2021 3rd round pick, 2022 1st round pick, 2023 1st round pick and QB Jared Goff.
Houston Texans: David Culley
The Texans’ shambolic head coach search came to an end as they hired David Culley. The Ravens’ assistant head coach is now the top man in Houston. Culley comes with a wealth of experience behind him; he will need all of it to navigate the choppy waters of a franchise in disarray. Culley’s 25 years of working on the offensive side of the ball place him in an excellent position to fix the Texans offense, with or without Deshaun Watson. A good man who values integrity and honesty; those traits will be vital in uniting a broken franchise.
As an inexperienced head coach Culley has already made some smart hires on the coaching staff. Tim Kelly is staying as offensive coordinator; the 34-year-old shares a good relationship with Watson, so it is wise that Houston are keeping him. With Watson, Kelly will look to employ a vertical passing attack that highlights Watson’s strengths. As an insurance policy, Pep Hamilton has arrived as quarterbacks coach. The veteran coach worked with Justin Herbert to significant effect this past season.
Lovie Smith is in as defensive coordinator. One of the pioneers of the Tampa 2 defense is back in the NFL. Smith knows defense; he was head coach of the Chicago Bears when they went to the Super Bowl in 2006-07. Chicago didn’t get there with a great offense; the defense took them to the brink of their second championship. Smith will in all likelihood be without JJ Watt; nevertheless, in Zach Cunningham, he has a linebacker he can build around. Smith is a fantastic addition given his experience of locker rooms.
Ultimately, David Culley is a massive unknown; he could be good or fail miserably. Culley must be authentic and bring his people skills to heal a divided franchise. He will know offense plus his staff looks promising. The big question is, at the age of 65 and with zero experience as the top dog, can Culley take on this mammoth task? I’m not sure.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer
The Jaguars landed the big fish in this hiring round, hiring Urban Meyer. The legendary college coach finally makes the step up into the NFL. Meyer does so with the team that will pick first in the 2021 draft. Meyer previously announced his retirement from coaching after his stint at Ohio State, and has since graced the TV studios covering the college game. Shahid Khan managed to tempt him out of that environment to come back to Florida. With 11 picks in the draft, plus a healthy cap situation, Meyer is not walking into a dumpster-fire,;there is a base to build a strong team.
Meyer provides leadership and cachet to the Jaguars franchise. Players will now view Jacksonville as an attractive destination and not just because of the weather and zero tax; there is a legitimate football reason to go to Duval County. Urban Meyer is the CEO of the football operation; he is the head man, a proven winner, a man that can develop successful football programmes. His knowledge of the college game stands him in good stead to attack the draft, that can be the bedrock of a successful organization. The concerns with Meyer revolve around team discipline and egos. Leading veteran players is very different from leading young players who’ve left home to pursue a football dream.
Darrell Bevell will join Meyer as the offensive coordinator. Bevell ran a heavy run-first offense in Seattle. The veteran coordinator enjoyed great success running the ball in Minnesota with Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. Bevell will likely end up working with rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence; luckily he owns experience in that area after developing Russell Wilson. Bevell also presents strong leadership skills as he became the interim head coach of the Detroit Lions.
Defensively Jacksonville looks set to hire Joe Cullen. The D Line coach comes from the Wink Martindale school of multiple defensive formations that creates pressure. If he aims to bring that to Jacksonville, it will require a major personnel overhaul. The Jags defense is bereft of swiss-army knife defenders that do everything.
Overall, Meyer can be the franchise visionary that Jacksonville want. He knows how to extract the best out of his coaches and players; however, he must keep his ego in check. The presence of prominent personalities at Daily’s Place makes it highly combustible.
Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Staley
Defensive wunderkind Brandon Staley is now the head coach of the Chargers. It completes a remarkable rise for the 38-year-old Dayton Alum. He takes the Chargers job after one solitary year as a coordinator, helping guide their neighbours The Rams’ defense to top-five in several categories. Staley came to the Rams after a year of being a linebacker coach in Denver, and his units wherever he has been have created so many problems for opposing offenses.
Now, with the Chargers, Staley gets to work with more elite defensive talent. One of the critical decisions Staley must make is what scheme he plays on defense. At the Rams they primarily played in a 3-4 front, the Chargers have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edge. Staley might change to a 4-3 front.
Staley’s defensive genius should see the Chargers improve on this side of the ball. Staley has recruited from some of the best coaching trees on the offensive side. Joe Lombardi is a coordinator from New Orleans while Shane Day joins as passing-game coordinator from the 49ers. Justin Herbert demonstrated last season that he is a franchise quarterback, and with two hotshot coordinators guiding him, he should improve.
Staley is a fantastic hire who is ready to lead a group of men. The fact that he owns experience leading defenses and calling plays bodes well. The Chargers might have finally found their long-term head coach.
New York Jets: Robert Saleh
The Jets made a huge statement snagging Robert Saleh from the 49ers. The Michigan-born man was the hottest coordinator on the market. Every team wanted to interview him, although, for Saleh, there was only one team. After his first interview, Saleh felt there was only one place for him. Saleh’s last two years in San Francisco saw him cultivate a magnificent defense -notably in 2020 even as the 49ers got hit with a rash of significant injuries. He has shown a knack for managing defense as well as providing fire and leadership, something that this franchise is in desperate need of.
Mike Lafleur joins Saleh from San Francisco to be the offensive coordinator. Even with the quarterback uncertainty, the offense should thrive under Lafleur. Matt’s baby brother will run an offense similar to that of his sibling. He will look to design a run-game based out of passing formations. With that, they love to use play-action or bootlegs to create wide-open passing windows. Lafleur’s offense will play smart and methodically.
The other quality Saleh presents to the Jets is high character. He speaks with integrity and authenticity. That is vital to win over a locker room. Saleh is a man that players will gravitate towards; he is the leader the New York Jets need.
Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Sirianni
After stuttering through a nervy press conference, Nick Sirianni begins his job in earnest. The hiring of the former Colts coordinator shocked many members of the NFL cognoscenti; Sirianni has just two years of coordinator experience under his belt and he never called plays. That is not to say that playcalling is a pre-requisite for head coaches, but it does help. Sirianni doesn’t appear to be the leader of men that Dan Campbell is. His trump card needs to be his offensive mind. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data to judge him on. He worked with Frank Reich and Doug Pederson so hopefully he learnt from them.
Ultimately Sirianni’s job will not live and die at the mercy of his x’s and o’s. Sirianni is walking into a disaster-zone of a franchise. Owner Jeffery Lurie is slowly transforming into Jerry Jones. The Philly natives want GM Howie Roseman’s head on a spike while senior voices in the locker room wanted Duce Staley as head coach. Staley has now left the organization entirely to go to the Lions. And lastly, there is the mess at quarterback. Carson Wentz is an expensive broken toy; moreover, Jalen Hurts is still learning his trade. Sirianni must surround himself with veteran coordinators who own head coaching experience. It is an enormous job for a rookie head coach.
One day, Nick Sirianni might become a good NFL head coach. It won’t be in Philadelphia; there are too many big problems for him to solve. Whilst it is no indictment on him, the Eagles have made the wrong hire. Sirianni might get chewed up and spat out in a year.
Tayyib is an avid NFL fan and, as a follower of the detroit lions, is a permanent resident in the honolulu blue heartbreak hotel. writing football articles since 2019, tayyib loves everything about the sport except that wins are not a qb stat. follow him on twitter @TayyibABU1