Grading Every Rookie Head Coach at Quarter Mark of 2021 NFL Season
Rookie NFL head coaches seem under the microscope more than ever.
The NFL has always been a "what have you done for me lately?" league that values results on the field. But the urgency for head coaches to get things right has been increased in recent years.
Cleveland fired Freddie Kitchens after one year in 2019, making him the fourth one-and-done coach over the prior five seasons. In 2018, Arizona fired a first-time and first-year head coach in Steve Wilks after drafting Josh Rosen in the top 10 that year. It then hired Kliff Kingsbury and drafted Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in 2019.
So tracking new head coaches every step of the way is important and sometimes complicated in modern times. When assigning grades to this year's seven rookie coaches, we'll grade on a curve relative to the talent on their respective rosters and expectations leading into the season.
Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons
Arthur Smith looked on the fast track to being a one-and-done coach after a collapse right out of the gate in Week 1 as his Atlanta Falcons ate a 32-6 home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Smith can at least be forgiven for following that up with a 48-25 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers before evening out somewhat with a 17-14 win over the New York Giants in Week 3 and a 34-30 loss to Washington in Week 4.
The problem for Smith is expectations. He's the offensive guru who got the most out of Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, so it seemed certain he'd unlock a Matt Ryan-directed offense. Sure, the front office saddled him with this weird mixture of rebuilding and win-now moves (trading Julio Jones, drafting Kyle Pitts fourth overall) and a bad defense, but an elite offense was almost a guarantee, right?
Through four games that hasn't been the case. Ryan has thrown eight scores (half of which came in the Week 4 loss) against three interceptions while averaging fewer than seven yards per attempt in each game (he averages 7.5 for his career). Pitts hasn't been overly visible, registering over 50 yards in a game once with no touchdowns.
Cautiously optimistic was the best way to approach the Falcons this year. But the results point to an even bigger roster reset and rebuild, not a flirtation with a playoff spot.
Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions
Dan Campbell wasn't dealt an easy hand going into his first permanent head-coaching opportunity.
The Detroit Lions were never going to rack up a ton of wins this year after trading Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for multiple first-round picks and Jared Goff. A team and roster that hadn't won more than six games in a season since 2017 was a significant challenge even before a downgrade under center.
That has shown up on the field, as Campbell's Lions sprinted to an 0-3 start. A Week 1, 41-33 loss to San Francisco showed some fight at least, as did a 19-17 loss to Baltimore in Week 3. But things spiraled out of control in Week 4 with a 24-14 loss to a so-so Chicago team.
But the roster has too many holes to be competitive. Goff has suffered 10 sacks and averaged more than seven yards per attempt just twice in four showings. Lead back D'Andre Swift has averaged more than four yards per carry once over four games. A tight end (T.J. Hockenson) and Swift have been the primary receiving targets, and the defense has let up 24 or more points three times.
Unless Campbell goes winless, it should be safe to presume he'll get to work with the stockpile of draft picks from the Stafford trade to reshape this roster to his liking in the coming years.
David Culley, Houston Texans
Arguably no new head coach inherited a worse situation than David Culley with the Houston Texans.
Culley joined a team that chose to start Tyrod Taylor, not Deshaun Watson under center. Watson's NFL future is uncertain. There have been 22 civil lawsuits filed against Watson by women alleging sexual assault or misconduct.
The team has also seen major names like J.J. Watt flee a franchise that won just four games last year with Watson on the field. The Texans entered the season looking like the league's most dramatic rebuilder.
So, of course, Culley and the Texans pulled off a win in Week 1.
That was a 37-21 trouncing of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fun, but what followed was three straight losses by 10 or more points, capped off by a 40-0 loss to Buffalo. Culley has had to go to David Mills under center after an injury to Taylor, his ground game can't muster even four yards per carry and after feasting on a rookie passer making his debut to start the season, the defense hasn't looked capable.
Much of this is hard to put on Culley's shoulders. But he's had his own rookie growing pains, too, such as some bad punt decisions. He'll learn from those, but it's hard to say how an unpredictable Houston front office will treat the head coach spot this offseason if the team hovers around the four-win mark again.
Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars
Urban Meyer was always going to be the new head coach under the most scrutiny because of his name recognition and the long history of winning he'd established collegiately.
But as Meyer has found out quickly, this isn't the same as coaching in college.
Meyer's Jacksonville Jaguars have bumbled to an 0-4 start, starting the year with an inexplicable, 37-21 beatdown at the hands of Houston. What followed was two losses at home by at least 10 points to the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals before another three-point loss on a Thursday night.
To Meyer's credit, the Jaguars looked better on a short turnaround against a now-3-1 Cincinnati team, only losing 24-21. Much of that has to do with first overall pick Trevor Lawrence looking more comfortable in a pro pocket.
Some of this can't be helped, as the Jaguars needed a roster overhaul more than maybe even Houston, and it's going to take time. But Meyer also deserves some of the blame. In Week 4, he passed on an easy field goal in a three-point loss and continues to underutilize running back James Robinson, who averages 4.9 yards per carry, even when up 14-0 on Thursday night.
Growing pains for both Meyer and Lawrence, paired with a bad roster, have left the Jaguars reeling. But as Lawrence gets more comfortable, the Jaguars will have more chances to pull off upsets.
Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers
No new head coach walked into a cosier situation than Brandon Staley with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Staley has elite-looking second-year passer Justin Herbert to thank. He's picked up right where he left off as a rookie, completing 69.8 percent of his passes with six touchdowns against three interceptions over the 2-1 start.
For Staley, that includes a statement 30-24 win on the road in Kansas City of all places in Week 3. The only blemish on the record is a three-point loss to Dallas, which isn't the biggest deal as it wasn't against a conference opponent.
Staley didn't inherit a perfect roster, but it's hard to go wrong with Herbert under center and foundational pieces like Joey Bosa and Derwin James on the defensive side. But he deserves credit, too, both for his offensive philosophy and the decision to attempt and convert a 4th-and-9 try in Kansas City late instead of taking an easy field goal, a strategy that kept Patrick Mahomes off the field and won the game.
A seemingly perfect marriage of roster talent and coaching approach, the Chargers are a major threat, even in the stacked AFC West.
Robert Saleh, New York Jets
The New York Jets are once again starting over with a rookie passer, and it's Robert Saleh in charge of the ship this time out.
Saleh, a defensive guru, was brought in to build the culture and get things back on track for a team that has been above .500 once since 2010. But a 1-3 start has that looking unlikely.
It's quicker to list what has gone right. But the focal point is second overall pick Zach Wilson, who looks like a project after completing 55.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and seven interceptions over his first three games. That got somewhat better in Week 4, as Wilson threw two touchdowns and a pick from 34 attempts in a 27-24 overtime win against Tennessee.
Some of this is directly on Saleh, as offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has looked out of his depth in his first attempt at a coordinator gig. Wilson's mobility and big-play ability that made him such a high pick aren't being used properly with moving pockets and rollouts. And Saleh's defense hasn't overly exceeded expectations in losses of 19-14, 25-6 and 26-0 margins before giving up 24 more in the win over the Titans.
Wilson needs more help, but the current roster and approach by the coaches doesn't make it seem likely this year.
Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles
Things started well for Nick Sirianni and the Philadelphia Eagles with a 32-6 thumping of Atlanta in the opener.
But hindsight says it all—beating up on Atlanta isn't that big of an accomplishment this year. What followed was an 0-3 skid to 1-3, highlighted by a 41-21 thumping by NFC East foe Dallas, then a 42-30 loss to Kansas City, a legitimate contender.
During that humbling defeat to Dallas, Sirianni's team looked undisciplined and was flagged 13 times. It was also a good example of an odd approach—the Eagles asked Jalen Hurts to attempt 39 passes in that game, while the offense ran it just 12 times—nine of those went to Hurts himself. Two went to Miles Sanders, who gained 27 yards.
Over the first three games, Hurts had attempted 97 passes with 26 rushes, while Sanders got 30 attempts despite averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Some of this comes down to game flow, but it is also a first-time head coach figuring out what will and won't work (and ignoring a star like Sanders is never a good idea).
It's an especially disappointing start for the Eagles because with Dallas back at full strength and Washington looking competitive, this isn't the same NFC East that sent a team with a losing record to the playoffs last year. It's also a critical year for Hurts' development, meaning the future of the franchise hangs in the balance too, so Sirianni doesn't get a long grace period.