Grading 2020's First-Year NFL Head Coaches So Far
Five NFL head coaches are in their first year with a new team in 2020. So far, they're doing surprisingly well given the circumstances.
Grading a new head coach can be tricky. Injuries to star players are a huge obstacle to overcome, but it's also crucial to see how the team is performing compared to the previous season.
That goes beyond just the overall record. Trends in offensive and defensive production, as well as turnover differential, can help gauge how a new head coach is faring.
With that in mind, we've graded each of the first-year head coaches based on how they've done heading into Week 13.
Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers peaked with a 15-1 record and run to the Super Bowl in 2015. They've been trending downward ever since, which is why they fired longtime head coach Ron Rivera last season and hired Matt Rhule as his replacement in January.
Prior to joining the Panthers, Rhule spent the past three seasons with the Baylor Bears. After going 1-11 during his first season at Baylor in 2017, he guided the Bears to a 7-6 record in 2018 and went 11-3 last season.
The Panthers were likely hoping Rhule would engineer a similarly quick turnaround, but they've gone only 4-8 thus far this year. However, they're already only one win away from tying their win total from last season.
The biggest difference this season compared to 2019 has been the defensive play. The Panthers allowed 29.4 points per game last season, the second-most in the league, but they're 15th this year with 25 points per game allowed.
Rhule needs to keep building out his offense in the coming seasons, especially if offensive coordinator Joe Brady leaves for a head coaching job this offseason. The Panthers currently rank 21st in scoring with only 23.3 points per contest.
Rhule hasn't gotten off to a perfect start in Carolina, but the Panthers appear to be trending in the right direction.
Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns haven't made the playoffs since 2002, but that might change in head coach Kevin Stefanski's first season with the team.
Stefanski had a number of different coaching roles with the Minnesota Vikings from 2006 until this past offseason, when the Browns were able to lure him away. Although he had never worked as a head coach before, he's already guided the Browns to an 8-3 record.
Prior to this season, the Browns hadn't won eight or more games since 2007. If they go 3-2 over their last five games, they'll match their best record since 1994.
The Browns' overall offensive and defensive numbers haven't changed too much since last year, but they have improved running the ball and winning the turnover battle. Their 161.4 rushing yards per game lead the NFL, while their plus-five turnover differential is significantly better than last year's minus-eight.
This isn't the same Browns team that NFL fans are used to seeing, and Stefanski deserves a lot of credit for that. If this is what he can do in his first season as head coach, who knows what the Browns can accomplish down the road?
Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy can't be blamed for losing his franchise quarterback this year, but there are other issues for which he should be held responsible.
The Green Bay Packers fired McCarthy after they got off to a 4-7-1 start in 2018, and he didn't coach anywhere last season. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was able to lure McCarthy out of his hiatus after the team parted ways with longtime head coach Jason Garrett in January.
The Cowboys' 2020 season was doomed when Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. They went from averaging 32.6 points in Prescott's five starts to 14.7 points in their six games without him, but McCarthy can be forgiven to a degree for that.
However, there are serious concerns about the Cowboys defense.
Dallas is allowing a league-high 32.6 points per game, while opposing quarterbacks are posting a 105.1 passer rating against them. That's a huge departure from last season, when the Cowboys were allowing only 20.1 points per game and a passer rating of 91.9.
A 3-8 record isn't what Cowboys fans expected in McCarthy's first season. The Cowboys should get back into playoff contention in 2021 if Prescott is healthy and signs a new contract, but the McCarthy era in Dallas isn't off to the best start.
Joe Judge, New York Giants
Despite some tough injury luck, the New York Giants are currently sitting in first place in the NFC East. Their record may not be great, but first-year head coach Joe Judge has to like the progress that's being made.
Before the Giants hired him, Judge had worked with the New England Patriots' special teams unit since 2012. He won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and two national championships before that with Alabama, so he's been no stranger to success in his coaching career.
The Giants have already matched last year's win total with a 4-7 record. Even though star running back Saquon Barkley went down with a torn ACL in Week 2, the Giants are playing better than they did in 2019.
With Barkley out, the Giants defense has led the way this year. They ranked 30th in the league with 28.2 points allowed per game last year, but they're tied for ninth with only 23 points per game allowed in 2020. Turnovers are a big reason why, as they've already generated 18 takeaways this year, two more than they had all of last season.
The NFC East is easily the worst division in football this year, but Judge deserves a lot of credit for what he's done without his most talented player.
Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team
Tied with Judge and the Giants atop the NFC East is Ron Rivera's Washington Football Team.
Washington quickly hired Rivera after the Panthers let him go. He had coached in Carolina for nine seasons and took the team to the Super Bowl in 2015, but a backslide over his final few seasons led to his departure.
Washington is coming off back-to-back wins for the first time in nearly a full calendar year. It already has more wins than it had all of last season, when it went 3-13 under Jay Gruden and Bill Callahan.
Although Washington has started three different quarterbacks this season, it has been able to stay in the race for a division title thanks to its formidable defense. A year after allowing 385.1 yards per game, the Football Team now ranks fourth in the NFL in total defense, giving up only 309.5 yards per contest.
Rivera has kept his team focused after a rocky start to the season to keep Washington in the playoff hunt. Even if the Football Team doesn't make the playoffs this year, it is starting to assemble the pieces on both sides of the ball to make it a formidable foe in the future.