Ranking Which New NFL Head Coaches Are Best Positioned to Succeed This Fall
A head coach taking over a new franchise is difficult under normal circumstances. With everything going on right now, ranging from pandemic precautions to shortened preparation time, the task could be nearly impossible in 2020.
Five franchises—the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Washington Football Team—feature newly appointed head coaches, and they're not all working from the same starting point, though the deck may be stacked against all five.
Rhule has the least amount of NFL experience among the group, but he succinctly described to Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer the issues each new coach faces thanks to a truncated practice schedule without the benefit of rookie camps, organized team activities or minicamps:
"The hard things, you can identify them right away. We go out to the practice field and things as simple as, 'Hey, here's how we want to warm up.'; 'Hey, here's where I want you guys to stand'; 'Here's how we do this drill.' We're going through all that now—six weeks before the first game. That's crazy. Those are things normally we would've done in May, and by now we'd have a really good feel for how we'd use our players, because we'd have worked with them.
"We're sitting here in August and I still haven't a full-sheet drill with anybody on our defense or offense yet. That part is gonna be hard. Evaluating your roster, not just on who makes your roster but how to use them is gonna be really hard. That part's legitimately a challenge."
Even so, each coach's experience level, support staff and levels of roster construction differ, which means two of the five are in a better position to put together a winning season this fall.
5. Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
Matt Rhule could be the next great NFL head coach who primarily cut his teeth at the collegiate level. Or, he could be another bust among those who were once considered the next hot coaching prospect.
His first season with the Carolina Panthers likely won't be much of an indicator regarding which direction he'll eventually go, and he's basically admitted as much.
"The ethos of the Carolina Panthers will be built now," Rhule told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer. "This is an opportunity for us to completely define who we are and how we do things. … So my challenge to our coaches is, This is really challenging, make this your best coaching job."
The coach added, "Right now, it's hard. Let's find a way to get it done."
Expectations are built during the first year a group is together. Rhule has a reputation as a program-builder, but his tenures with the Temple Owls and Baylor Bears saw him combine for a 3-21 record during his initial campaigns.
The inexperience found throughout his staff and roster will make things even more difficult with Carolina.
Offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have never called plays at the NFL level. Furthermore, the team has a new starting quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, traded away its best offensive lineman in Trai Turner, cut tight end Greg Olsen, lost All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly to retirement and will feature a very young defense.
Panthers faithful should be prepared for a long season as the coaching staff figures out exactly what the team is going to look like under Rhule's supervision.
4. Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team
Ron Rivera took on more than he could have possibly expected when he became the new head coach of the Washington Football Team.
The organization is mired in controversy, starting with a toxic culture that allowed for rampant sexual harassment and desperately needs to be changed and the continued drama around the team's naming rights.
Rivera is now the face of the organization, and his vision will drive the entire franchise.
"[Owner] Dan Snyder brought me here to change culture and create an environment of inclusion among employees," the head coach told reporters last month. "I believe that everyone that works for this franchise has a vested interest in our success."
Everything circulating around the team could be difficult to handle.
That said, Rivera brought over a wealth of experience in his transition from the Carolina Panthers with a group of veteran coaches and front office personnel who are now taking over parts of the football operations: Rob Rogers as senior vice president of football administration, Eric Stokes as director of pro scouting and Don Warren as senior pro scout.
Rivera has a history of success as a two-time Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year who made four playoff appearances and even earned a spot in Super Bowl 50 during his time in Carolina.
However, inconsistencies through nine seasons eventually led to his dismissal, and Washington is far from a stacked roster. Significant question marks exist at quarterback, tight end, left tackle and wide receiver.
3. Joe Judge, New York Giants
Joe Judge's hire by the New York Giants was the most nondescript move among the incoming crop of new head coaches. The former New England Patriots special teams coordinator certainly wasn't considered one of the top available candidates, but he impressed during the interview process and earned the job.
Judge could have left for the SEC and led the Mississippi State Bulldogs, but Giants brass was taken with him and quickly secured his services. Team president John Mara explained during an interview on WFAN that the first-time head coach is exactly what the organization wanted as someone who would do things differently:
"He's coming in, he's 38 years old, he comes from a completely different organization. He was not a safe, comfortable pick. One of the things we were looking for quite frankly was somebody who was going to come in here and maybe make some people a little bit uncomfortable. What's gone on the last few years is not acceptable anymore. We have to try a new way of doing things, and he's got some unique ideas about dealing with players and how you practice and the discipline factor and the leadership factor."
The Giants have one winning season among the last seven. Part of that is coaching; the other part falls on roster mismanagement.
Currently, New York has a few exciting, young pieces in quarterback Daniel Jones, running back Saquon Barkley, wide receiver Darius Slayton and defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence. However, the organization spent heavily this offseason on the acquisitions of cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez, as well as the retention of defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
Do those moves sound like course-correcting adjustments?
The Giants may have a better coaching staff willing to take the team in a different direction, but the roster isn't significantly better today than the squad that finished 9-23 over the last two seasons.
2. Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns
This time last year, the Cleveland Browns were being discussed as Super Bowl contenders. Seriously.
Few teams feature better all-around talent than the group Cleveland currently sports. Running back Nick Chubb, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver Jarvis Landry, guard Joel Bitonio, center JC Tretter, defensive end Myles Garrett, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and cornerback Denzel Ward are some of the best players at their respective positions.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield is also one season removed from setting the NFL's single-season rookie record with 27 touchdown passes.
What held a squad with so much potential back a year ago? Coaching.
Freddie Kitchens earned the head coaching gig on the back of an impressive eight-game tryout as the team's interim offensive coordinator in 2018. As a head coach, he was completely overwhelmed with all aspects of play-calling and game management and struggled to deal with the players' personalities. The Browns showed up every week woefully unprepared and disorganized.
Kitchens found himself in a one-and-done situation after a highly disappointing 6-10 record.
New head coach Kevin Stefanski seems to fall on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to his preparation, demeanor and ability to relate to his team.
"Just hearing his message, everything he does is with a purpose," Mayfield told reporters in May. "It's a very deliberate message, and he has everybody believing in that on the staff. I think that's how the foundation should be set, and he's done an unbelievable job of that."
The previously discussed potential within Cleveland's roster remains, and it's now supported by the fresh additions of right tackle Jack Conklin, tight end Austin Hooper, fullback Andy Janovich, linebacker B.J. Goodson, this year's 10th overall draft pick, left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., and second-round safety Grant Delpit.
1. Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys
Owner Jerry Jones looms large over every decision made by the Dallas Cowboys franchise. Even so, Mike McCarthy's hire gives the organization its first real sense of gravitas since Bill Parcells' last season 14 years ago.
Jason Garrett's tenure became a running joke centered around extraneous answers to media members, clapping on the sideline and somehow retaining his job for 10 years despite producing only three playoff appearances and not a single postseason victory beyond the wild-card round.
In 13 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy led his team to nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl XLV victory.
"Yes, we needed Mike," Jones told reporters during the head coach's introductory press conference. "We needed a coach. But to have his availability and to have his track record and ability to check all the boxes that I just talked about was fortuitous for this franchise."
The 56-year-old head coach easily walks into the best situation among his contemporaries.
The Cowboys are coming off an 8-8 season with the NFC East's best all-around roster. The team already has a franchise quarterback in Dak Prescott, a workhorse running back in Ezekiel Elliott, three extremely talented wide receivers (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb), one of the league's better offensive lines, a top pass-rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence and three Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers (Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee).
Unlike the Browns in the AFC North, who are competing with the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas has a much easier path through its division, especially with two other NFC East foes also featuring new head coaches and inferior rosters.
Dallas is positioned to improve upon last season's .500 campaign as long as McCarthy and his staff deftly navigate all the obstacles placed in front of the team during an unorthodox offseason.