Boom-or-Bust Potential on Each New QB/Head Coach Marriage in 2019
Find an innovative offensive mind for the quarterback—that's what most NFL teams in need of a new head coach tried to accomplish during the hiring process.
It's a copycat league. After watching Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay develop Jared Goff into a two-time Pro Bowler following a nondescript rookie season, several clubs wanted a play-caller to wave the same magic wand over their quarterbacks.
We're starting to see organizations take chances on candidates in their 30s without prior head-coaching experience—just like McVay when he accepted the Rams job at 30 years old. Though it's becoming the norm, a few teams went against the grain. Is it the right move?
Let's take a look at the six official head-coaching hires—leaving out the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals, who have yet to finalize new coaches—and project boom or bust for their quarterback-head coach pairings.
The assessments are based on coaches' track records and whether they've shown to be capable of developing or elevating the starting quarterback.
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury and Josh Rosen
Even though Kliff Kingsbury ventures into uncharted territory in the pros, he does have collegiate success with NFL talents. As a co-play-caller and quarterbacks coach at Houston, Kingsbury helped guide Case Keenum to an extraordinary 2011 season with 5,631 passing yards, 48 touchdowns and five interceptions. The following year, he served as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M during Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy-winning year.
Kingsbury then returned to his alma mater, Texas Tech, as the head coach. During his six-year tenure (2013-18), the program didn't rank lower than 54th in scoring, and the Red Raiders listed within the top five in the category twice in that span. He worked with Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes; the former transferred to Oklahoma after one campaign, and the latter threw for 11,252 yards, 93 touchdowns and 29 interceptions in three seasons.
The notable names who played under Kingsbury and became first-round draft picks and starters in the NFL illustrate the 39-year-old's success with pro-level talents despite having a resume limited to collegiate work. In an interview with ESPN's Sam Ponder, he cited the Rams' development as a mold to emulate. "I thought Sean [McVay] did a good job of building a system around Jared [Goff], and we hope to do the same here," he said.
Similar to Goff, quarterback Josh Rosen had a forgettable rookie year, throwing for 2,278 yards, 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing 55.2 percent of his attempts. The UCLA product could see a comparable improvement under his new head coach.
Like Los Angeles, Arizona has an All-Pro running back, David Johnson, to feature as the engine of the offense. Rosen's wide receiver corps isn't as loaded, and the offensive line needs an upgrade at left guard and right tackle. Even so, the Cardinals have $56 million in cap space, per Spotrac, and the Nos. 1 and 33 picks to use or trade in order to acquire more capital in an attempt to address their offensive needs.
While Kingsbury doesn't have the NFL experience of the other hires, he has a track record for optimizing quarterback talent in the early stages of their careers. That bodes well for Rosen.
Cleveland Browns: Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield
Head coach Freddie Kitchens and quarterback Baker Mayfield seem like an ideal match. The Cleveland Browns' lead skipper has a background as a quarterbacks coach under Bruce Arians from 2013 to 2016 in Arizona. That staff helped Carson Palmer resurrect his career; he earned Pro Bowl honors in 2015 and led the league in QBR (77.1) that season.
This year, Kitchens had a hand in improving the Browns' pass production and keeping Mayfield off the ground, which justifies the hire as a good one.
The rookie signal-caller threw for 1,471 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions and took 20 sacks in six games under head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The Oklahoma product logged 2,254 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions and took five sacks with Gregg Williams as the interim head coach and Kitchens as the play-caller for eight games.
Because of Williams' background as a defensive coordinator, Kitchens deserves the majority of the credit for uplifting the Browns offense in the second half of the season. Unlike any of the head coach-quarterback tandems on this list, this pair has already flourished together. Now, it's a matter of building on momentum from the 2018 campaign.
Denver Broncos: Vic Fangio and Case Keenum
Denver Broncos president of football operations and general manager John Elway went against the grain with his head-coaching hire. Longtime defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will lead this team with Case Keenum at the helm.
The Broncos don't seem fully committed to their starting quarterback. Elway referred to Keenum as "probably a short-term fix" in an interview with NBC Sports' Peter King (h/t Kyle Fredrickson of the Denver Post). The 30-year-old will go into a contract year, and it seems like it'll be his last in Denver.
In addition to Keenum's uncertain future with the team, the Broncos are expected to hire a first-time offensive coordinator in Rich Scangarello, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, after Gary Kubiak backed out of accepting the position and took an advisory role with the Minnesota Vikings. Denver's new play-caller served as a quarterbacks coach for two years on Kyle Shanahan's staff in San Francisco. It's a risky hire with a low-ceiling signal-caller and a defensive-minded head coach.
Fangio may become a solid choice, but he's clearly "dating" Keenum until Elway pulls the plug and tabs his franchise quarterback. In the meantime, the Broncos may opt to focus on the ground attack, featuring two promising rookies, Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay.
With a run-heavy offense, it's hard to imagine Keenum shows much improvement in production for the upcoming season. In fact, he may not even finish the year as a starter.
Green Bay Packers: Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has been exposed to bright offensive minds—both retired and active. He served as a quarterbacks coach under Mike Shanahan in Washington, held the same position with the Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff (which included Kyle Shanahan as a play-caller) during Matt Ryan's All-Pro 2016 season and became an offensive coordinator for Sean McVay's Rams staff in 2017.
LaFleur can take bits and pieces from those coaching groups to refine Aaron Rodgers' game. However, the Tennessee Titans offense underwhelmed when he was calling the plays in 2018. Quarterback Marcus Mariota only had tight end Delanie Walker for one game because Walker broke his ankle in the season opener, and wide receiver Rishard Matthews requested his release after three games. Still, it's discouraging to see that Mariota finished with career lows in passing yards per game (180.6) and QBR (53.1).
Rodgers, meanwhile, may not be receptive to coaching from a first-time head coach. On Yahoo Sports' Mostly Football show, Packers tight end Marcedes Lewis recalled a moment when Rodgers overruled former head coach Mike McCarthy's orders from the sideline (h/t Ryan Young):
"One time I really saw it for the first time, we were in the huddle. I guess McCarthy called in a play, and Aaron was kind of like, 'Nah.' He gave a direction and a protection to the line, and went. It was a four-minute offense, he threw a 40-yard bomb for a completion. I'm like, 'What's really going on?' I've never seen anything like that before in my life."
If Rodgers ignored a play call from a Super Bowl-winning head coach who held the position for 13 years, will he stick to the script with a less accomplished offensive mind whose unit ranked near the bottom last year?
It's not to say Rodgers would openly disregard his head coach, but it's fair to ask if he'll trust LaFleur's decision-making in critical situations.
Since McVay was running the show in Los Angeles, LaFleur's success as a play-caller seems questionable. His proximity to offensive production far outweighs his role in contributing to those units. That raises major concern for the Packers' new hire.
New York Jets: Adam Gase and Sam Darnold
Adam Gase went 23-25 over the last three years as the Miami Dolphins head coach. He led a 10-6 squad to the playoffs in 2016.
Since 2016, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has suffered an MCL sprain, a torn ACL and a shoulder injury, which sidelined him for 24 games. In other words, Gase didn't have his starting signal-caller for half of his first head-coaching tenure.
When healthy, under Gase, Tannehill logged 4,974 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Those numbers don't jump off the page, but they're decent considering the 30-year-old missed the entire 2017 campaign and endured an injury-riddled 2018 term.
Keep in mind Tannehill converted from being primarily a wide receiver to a full-time quarterback in his junior year at Texas A&M. Though Miami's offense didn't perform well as a whole, Gase managed to put the former Aggie in position to perform at the level of a starting-caliber signal-caller.
As the offensive coordinator for the Broncos in 2013 and 2014, Gase organized top-five units in scoring and yards with Peyton Manning at the helm in the latter stages of his career. Despite his advanced age, following multiple neck surgeries, Manning logged a career-high 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in 2013.
To this day, Manning vouches for Gase as a bright offensive mind, and his approval factored into the New York Jets' decision to hire him, per Newsday's Bob Glauber. "It turned out to be a lasting relationship and one that had an impact on the Jets' coaching search," Glauber wrote. "Manning personally vouched for Gase in a phone call to Jets CEO Christopher Johnson during the nine-day interview process that culminated with Gase's hiring last Wednesday."
Of course, Sam Darnold isn't comparable to Manning, but Gase has proved he's capable of elevating talent. Darnold showed flashes late in the 2018 season, throwing six touchdown passes and one interception from Weeks 14 to 16. Naturally, he'll likely make strides after learning from rookie mistakes, but a knowledgeable mind on the sideline will accelerate his growth.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians and Jameis Winston
Among the new hires, Bruce Arians, at 66 years old, is the most experienced in the group. He took a year off from coaching, but he's back in the mix with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What's his objective? Save quarterback Jameis Winston's career as a starter.
Arians isn't the young coach who relates to his players in age range, but he's proved his ability to develop quarterbacks in their prime years. In 2007, as an offensive coordinator, Arians paired with 25-year-old Ben Roethlisberger—the same age as Winston going into the 2019 campaign. In a five-year span under Arians, the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked within the top 10 in passing yards and touchdowns twice.
During the 2012 campaign, former Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano had to step away to undergo treatment for leukemia. In his absence, Arians worked with then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, who went to the Pro Bowl that year. As a head coach for the Cardinals, Arians led a top-10 scoring offense and passing attack in two out of five seasons with Carson Palmer at the helm.
Based on Arians' previous work, he's more than capable of helping with consistency at quarterback. Winston isn't inept. In his first two seasons, he threw for 8,132 yards, 50 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. If Arians can keep the signal-caller's turnovers down, we should see the best of him in the coming years.
With the pass-catching talent on the roster (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and DeSean Jackson, depending on whether Jackson still wants to leave Tampa), Winston should put up career numbers under Arians.