Grading the NFL's First-Year Head Coaches so Far
A quarter of the NFL made head coaching changes this past offseason. Only two of the eight coaches hired had previous NFL head coaching experience. This meant the group as a whole was likely to face a fairly steep learning curve.
That has indeed been the case, as only Matt LaFleur of the Green Bay Packers currently holds a winning record. That's not a huge surprise, of course, as teams ready to win now aren't typically making coaching changes.
Judging a first-year head coach on record alone ignores the bigger picture. Wins are important, but so are factors like team chemistry, improvement in problem areas, the maximization of talent and team discipline.
With all of this considered, let's examine just how the 2019 first-year head coaches grade out with a month remaining in the regular season.
Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals
The primary goal for the Arizona Cardinals this season was to develop rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has succeeded tremendously in this regard, as Murray has been quietly impressive despite playing on a roster devoid of talent—Arizona earned the No. 1 pick in the draft for a reason.
Kingsbury has crafted an offense that plays to Murray's strengths and has made for an easier NFL transition. Murray has rarely appeared overwhelmed. Murray is the future of the Cardinals organization and is trending in the right direction as a signal-caller.
While Kingsbury hasn't exactly brought his Air Raid offense to Arizona, he has utilized concepts more commonly found in college than in the NFL. He's kept opposing defenses guessing with pre-snap motion, unusual formations and a generous dose of designed quarterback runs.
If Arizona can surround Murray with better talent, this could be one of the league's most exciting offenses in 2020.
While Kingsbury has done a good job of developing Murray, he's done a poor job of protecting him. The rookie has held onto the ball too long at times, but the 41 sacks he's taken through 12 games are also a result of play-calling. Kingsbury could do a better job of adjusting to the fact that his line is bad.
The Cardinals offense was a complete disaster under head coach Steve Wilks last year, and yet Josh Rosen was sacked just three more times in two more appearances.
Defense has also been a problem for the Cardinals this season. Arizona ranks in the bottom two in points allowed (29.2 per game), yards allowed (426.3 per game) and passing yards allowed (307.5 per game). Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has to bear some blame here, but Kingsbury is still the one overseeing the show.
The Cardinals are far from a complete team, though it's fair to recognize that not every issue can be addressed in a single season.
Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals have continued to fight hard all season, as evidenced by their 22-6 beatdown of the New York Jets in Week 13. It's easy for teams to lose motivation during a previously winless season, and Zac Taylor deserves a lot of credit for keeping his team focused.
This has been a theme all season, as Cincinnati has played better than its record might indicate. Six of Cincinnati's losses have been by a touchdown or fewer, and this team could easily be hovering around .500 right now.
While the on-field results have often been discouraging, Taylor has not lost his team. The Bengals are not going to roll over for anyone and will present a tough out down the stretch.
Boy, are those on-field results discouraging—and not just because of the win-loss record.
Taylor, a former Sean McVay assistant, was brought in to rejuvenate the Cincinnati offense. He's arguably done the opposite. Cincinnati ranks 31st in scoring (14.9 points per game), 26th in total offense (301 yards per game) and 29th in rushing offense (78 yards per game).
One can blame a lack of talent and injuries for the Bengals' offensive woes—star wideout A.J. Green still hasn't played this season—but these were both issues in 2018 under Marvin Lewis. That Bengals team averaged eight points more per contest.
This is not a good team, but it was fair for Cincinnati to expect some flashes of offensive brilliance—as the Cardinals are seeing from Kingsbury. Taylor has not provided that, amplifying the fact the Bengals have one of the worst defenses in the league (405 yards per game allowed).
Taylor has also made some questionable coaching decisions along the way. Benching Andy Dalton for rookie Ryan Finley for a three-game stretch accomplished nothing. There's a reason why the Bengals have lost so many close games instead of winning them, and it's coaching.
This roster would likely have at least a handful of wins under Jackson, and while mediocrity is never something to strive for, it's better than what the Bengals have with Taylor in Year 1.
Freddie Kitchens, Cleveland Browns
At 5-7, the Cleveland Browns still have a shot at a winning season. It won't be easy, but this is a position the Browns have rarely been in during December. The Browns are fighting, and it seems head coach Freddie Kitchens still has the full support of his locker room.
Kitchens has a chance to guide Cleveland to its first non-losing season since 2007.
Where do we begin?
We can probably start with the expectations the Browns had heading into the season. Though largely a product of the media, those expectations suggested the Browns would be a large factor in the AFC playoff race. They've barely been a factor in the AFC North.
Some of the failure to meet expectations has to fall on Kitchens, who has struggled to utilize the talent at his disposal. In Week 13, for instance, star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. caught a mere three passes for 29 yards. That's unacceptable.
With players like Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the roster, the Browns should be averaging more than the 20.5 points per game they currently are. That falls squarely on Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Kitchens has also created a culture that lacks discipline. Cleveland has been flagged 99 times this season, fourth-most in the NFL, and many of those infractions—personal fouls, false starts—are easily avoidable. Decisions like wearing the now-infamous "Pittsburgh Started It" shirt aren't setting a good example either, though Kitchens doesn't seem to grasp that.
"I'd do it again," Kitchens told reporters (h/t Matt Florjancic of WKYC).
Then, there's the regression of quarterback Baker Mayfield. The former Oklahoma star set a rookie passing record with 27 touchdowns last season but has floundered in Year 2. He's completed just 60 percent of his passes and has 16 turnovers to go with 14 touchdown throws. This, perhaps more than anything, falls on Kitchens, as it's been his offense and his play calls that have set Mayfield up for failure.
Vic Fangio, Denver Broncos
Given the turmoil the Denver Broncos have experienced at quarterback, the fact that they remain competitive is impressive. Vic Fangio deserves credit for keeping his team focused through three different quarterbacks and plenty of offensive inconsistencies.
Fangio also deserves credit for maintaining a high level of defensive play despite the offensive struggles. While Denver ranks 27th in total offense (295.8 yards per game), it has limited opposing offenses to just 19.8 points per game, ninth-fewest in the league.
The Broncos made Fangio one of the few defensive head coaching hires this past offseason, and they're getting just what the bargained for. Because of Fangio's defense, the Broncos have remained competitive most weeks—five of their eight losses have come by a touchdown or fewer.
If Denver can identify a reliable starting quarterback—ideally, rookie second-round pick Drew Lock—they should be in position for a notable turnaround.
Though offense isn't Fangio's specialty, he's still the guy in charge. Therefore, the struggles of offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello still fall on Fangio.
Yes, the Broncos have lost Joe Flacco for the season and have dealt with journeyman backup Brandon Allen at quarterback. However, this doesn't excuse the overall lack of production on that side of the ball. Denver ranks 16th in rushing (108.3 yards per game) but ranks just 20th with eight rushing touchdowns.
Denver was a solid defensive team with a struggling offense last season too. The reality is that this team hasn't taken enough positive strides in Fangio's first season.
The Broncos will have to go at least 2-2 down the stretch to match the win total of 2018—a season for which former head coach Vance Joseph lost his job.
Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers
Last season, the Packers decided to turn the page on head coach Mike McCarthy for two distinct reasons. They were in the middle of a second-consecutive losing season, and the offense around future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers had grown stagnant.
The hiring of Matt LaFleur as head coach has helped address both of these issues.
At 9-3, Green Bay has already secured a winning season. The Packers are first in the NFC North and have a shot at a first-round bye in the postseason. With two NFC teams sitting at 10-2, the Packers will need help, but this is still a far cry from last year's 6-9-1 finish.
Offensively, LaFleur has brought new life to Green Bay as well. He has utilized unique play calls and given Rodgers plenty of freedom to adjust the offense at the line of scrimmage. The result has been the league's 11th-ranked scoring offense (24.1 points per game) and a remarkable year for Rodgers, who has 22 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
With defensive coordinator Mike Pettine overseeing an aggressive and productive unit on the other side of the ball (14th in scoring with 21.2 points per game allowed), Green Bay is one of the more balanced teams in the NFC.
Consistency has been an issue under LaFleur's guidance. The Packers have had some tremendous games offensively, along with a couple of complete duds.
Green Bay scored just 19 combined points in losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers. This hints at a lack of preparation and adjustment—along with a reliance on what had previously been working.
LaFleur has also failed to address an issue that existed under McCarthy—a heavy reliance on wideout Davante Adams. LaFleur has gotten running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams involved in the passing game, but Adams still leads Packers wide receivers by a considerable margin.
Adams has 217 yards more than wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling despite playing in four fewer games.
Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
Head coach Brian Flores has the Miami Dolphins playing some of the most inspired football in the NFL right now. Despite being perhaps the most talent-starved team in the league, Miami has won three of its last five games. Given that this was supposed to be a tanking season for the Dolphins—they traded the likes of Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kenny Stills before or early in the season—the continued fight is impressive.
So is Miami's discipline under Flores. Only three teams have been flagged fewer times than the Dolphins this season.
The Dolphins front office sent the message early that winning isn't the main goal of 2019. It could have been easy for the players to coast toward the offseason, playing sloppy, uninspired football. Flores isn't letting that happen.
"What the Dolphins are doing under Brian Flores is NOT a surprise to anyone that has played, scouted, or coached with him," Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said, via Twitter. "True leader. While he realistically won't win Coach-of-the-Year, getting this stripped-down team to 3 wins should earn him votes."
Flores' presence and coaching acumen should provide Dolphins fans with something that seemed impossible after four straight blowout losses to start the season: hope.
Flores isn't playing along with Miami's plans to tank for draft positioning. Because he refuses to just go out and lose, fans hoping to see the Dolphins land a top quarterback prospect like LSU's Joe Burrow will likely be disappointed—though, to be fair, their three first-round picks in 2020 could still get them there.
The decision to stick with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick may also hurt Miami in the long run. While the journeyman signal-caller seems to give the Dolphins their best chance to win games, having him under center means Miami isn't getting an extended look at Josh Rosen.
Miami traded a second-round draft pick for Rosen during last year's draft but isn't giving him a chance to prove whether he can be the quarterback of the future. While this is unlikely the sole decision of Flores, you can bet the head coach has had his say.
Adam Gase, New York Jets
The New York Jets hired head coach Adam Gase because of his reputation as a supposed quarterback guru. Though he went just 23-25 as head coach of the Dolphins, New York believed Gase could aid in the growth of quarterback Sam Darnold.
To a degree, he has. Darnold has improved his completion percentage—up more than five percent over last season—and has appeared more comfortable in the pocket. He's had some truly dominant performances, despite having a relative lack of receiving weapons.
The former USC star appears to be on the path to becoming a franchise quarterback, and it's fair to give Gase at least a little credit.
It's also fair to wonder just how much better Darnold could be playing under an actual quarterback whisperer. Ryan Tannehill's success with the Tennessee Titans this season suggests Gase simply isn't a genius when it comes to developing quarterbacks.
Gase may also not be head-coaching material. He's failed to keep his team consistently competitive, has underutilized players like Le'Veon Bell, and he may have already given up on the 2019 season.
"Things didn't work out for us this year. We couldn't get things rolling in the right direction," Gase said, per Matt Stypulkoski of NJ.com.
With four games remaining, Gase should still have his team focused on 2019, not lamenting a lost season. This lack of motivation may have trickled down to the players and could explain their disastrous effort against the previously winless Bengals.
Aside from a few games, the Jets have not played like a consistent, cohesive or determined unit. That falls squarely on Gase, as does the fact that New York is closing in on a fourth-straight losing season.
We'll learn a lot in the final month about Gase's ability to keep the locker room together. If he can muster a couple more wins and showcase more development from Darnold, then perhaps Gase will be viewed more positively. Through 13 weeks, though, he's failed to meet expectations.
Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bruce Arians has twice been named NFL Coach of the Year. He isn't going to win the award for his first season at the helm of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he quietly putting together a strong campaign.
Arians has already coached Tampa to as many wins as it had in each of the past two seasons. His offense is explosive—it ranks fourth in scoring, averaging 28.3 points per game—and has kept the Buccaneers in most games this season. They've won three of their last four.
Arians also deserves credit for taking a hard stance with underperforming players. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves consistently played poorly. He's out. Running back Ronald Jones II missed a blitz pickup in Week 13.
"You don't get to play no more," Arians said of Jones, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.
Arians is running a tight ship, and as long as the players don't sour on his disciplinarian approach, it should help make Tampa a better team heading into 2020.
Arians has not fixed Jameis Winston. He was hired in large part to get the most out of the 2015 first-overall pick. While Arians' offense has allowed Winston to flourish at times—he's on pace for a career year in passing yards—the former Florida State star's turnover problems remain.
Winston has averaged just over two turnovers per game this season.
When combined with a defense that ranks 31st against the pass (281.8 yards per game allowed), Winston's turnovers have often been game-killing. It's been hard enough to limit opposing scoring without giving teams extra opportunities, often on a short field.
Heading into 2020, Arians and the Buccaneers have two immediate challenges. They have to make a decision on Winston's future, and they have to figure out how to fix a struggling secondary. Given the severity of these issues, the fact that Tampa still has a shot at a winning season is a positive reflection on the job Arians has done to this point.