The Biggest Challenge Facing Every New NFL Head Coach in 2020
Though NFL teams have and will fire head coaches after just one year—Steve Wilks in 2018, Freddie Kitchens this season—it's not fair to judge a new coach based on the wins and losses of a single campaign. Determining whether a coach is on the right track requires more than just glances at box scores. They should be evaluated on their ability to overcome the biggest challenges ahead of them.
Yes, Kitchens failed to improve on the Cleveland Browns' 2018 record of 7-8-1. However, he was likely given the ax because quarterback Baker Mayfield and the offense regressed under his direction.
The Arizona Cardinals this season won just two more games than they did in 2018, but there was virtually no talk of firing Kliff Kingsbury because he had rookie quarterback Kyler Murray playing like a quality NFL starter. Given the team's lack of talent on offense, it was a noteworthy accomplishment.
Though the records for Cleveland (6-10) and Arizona (5-10-1) were nearly identical, one coach rose to the challenge at hand, while the other did not. Here, we'll examine the most significant challenge facing each of the 2020 coaching hires.
They are listed in alphabetical order.
Joe Judge, New York Giants: Developing Daniel Jones
As was the case with Freddie Kitchens and Kliff Kingsbury, New York Giants head coach Joe Judge will be tasked with developing a young quarterback. In his case, it's former Duke signal-caller Daniel Jones.
Jones showed some promise as a rookie, but he also struggled with turnovers and poor pocket awareness. These are issues Judge and his offensive coordinator—yet to be named—have to address. In addition, Judge and his staff must implement game plans that can play to Jones' strengths while minimizing the impact of what is a low-tier offensive line.
Judge will also have to better a defense that ranked 30th in points allowed (28.2 per game) so he can take some pressure off his young quarterback.
Yes, Judge faces the challenge of improving on a 4-12 record with a team that is one of the most talent-starved in the NFL. However, the bigger challenge will be developing Jones—and other young core players such as Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard—into franchise cornerstones with that same roster.
It may be far more important to evaluate Judge on the way his team performs against playoff contenders than it will be to count the number of wins—especially if several of them come against fellow bottom feeders.
Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys: Winning Now
While Ron Rivera can hope for patience, Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy cannot. If owner Jerry Jones had any intention of taking a patient approach, he wouldn't have fired Jason Garrett a year after his team narrowly missed out on the NFC title game. Jones wants to win now, and that sentiment was echoed Monday by vice president of player personnel Will McClay.
"When we had eight losses and eight wins. That's where it went wrong," McClay said on JaM Session. "Each game is a challenge, and there were games that we felt like that we should've won that we didn't get it done."
McCarthy isn't going to last long in Dallas if he doesn't turn the team into a title contender quickly—and that could be a struggle. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott isn't getting any younger, Amari Cooper could depart in free agency, and Dak Prescott is about to take up a huge chunk of the team's cap space.
If Judge and Matt Rhule overcome their obstacles, the NFC East will get a lot more competitive too—and it's not like the Philadelphia Eagles are going anywhere.
There isn't time for a transition period in Dallas, and that can be tough, even for a veteran coach.
Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers: Making the Jump to the NFL
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rule seems like an ideal coach. He's a natural leader who helped turn around college programs Temple and Baylor. Baylor went from 1-11 in Rhule's first season in 2017 to 11-3 and ranked as high as eighth in the country this season. Much of the growth can be attributed to the fiery attitude he instilled in his players.
"Being that tough, scrappy, overachieving walk-on linebacker at Penn State has given him that fuel and the chip on the shoulder to continue pushing through," former Penn State teammate Brandon Noble said, per Matt Lombardo of NJ Advance Media. "And his teams have become a reflection of that."
The challenge for Rhule will be getting his style of coaching to work with paid professional athletes.
If he can get veterans such as Greg Olsen and Cam Newton—assuming he isn't traded—to buy in, then Carolina could be Rhule's next successful reclamation project. However, certain means of player motivation don't always translate from the college ranks to the NFL.
Even Jim Harbaugh's act eventually wore thin, and he got the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship Games.
Ron Rivera, Washington Redskins: Developing Dwayne Haskins Jr.
Like Joe Judge, Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera will face the challenge of turning a young quarterback—Dwayne Haskins Jr., in this case—into a reliable starter. Rivera has been there and done that before in the NFL. He helped oversee Cam Newton's transformation from promising rookie to league MVP.
The challenge for Rivera lies with Haskins as much as it does the team's surrounding talent. The Ohio State product was not ready to start as a rookie, and it showed—he completed just 58.6 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and nine turnovers.
Yet, turning Haskins into a serviceable quarterback will be the goal, and sooner than later. Owner Dan Snyder, who pushed for Haskins in last year's draft, will make it so.
Rivera wouldn't have taken the Washington job if he wasn't comfortable with the challenge, but that doesn't make it any easier. The Redskins lack offensive weapons, could lose a top lineman in free-agent guard Brandon Scherff and have a defense that ranked 27th in points allowed (27.2 per game).
Rivera better hope Snyder is willing to exercise patience, because this isn't a challenge he can overcome overnight.
Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns: Changing the Locker Room Culture
Part of the reason why the Browns hired former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was his willingness to embrace analytics. This was a personal hire for chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, who has been leading the analytics charge for more than two decades and in two major sports.
Stefanski and the Browns front office should work well together. That's a great first step, but Stefanski also has to change a culture of disappointment.
The Browns haven't had a winning season since 2007. Even newer players can sense the stink of losing that hangs over the franchise. There was promise a year ago, but Kitchens failed to field a disciplined and prepared team.
Stefanski doesn't just have to get his players to buy in to him, but he also has to get them to buy in to themselves. And he has to transform what is a talented roster into a cohesive team.
If Stefanski cannot first convince his players they can consistently win, he's going to have no chance of changing the losing culture that has plagued the Browns since their return to the league in 1999.