Grading 2021's First-Year NFL Head Coaches Entering Season's Final Month
When a new NFL head coach takes over a team, he accepts a big opportunity and, in most cases, an even larger challenge in changing the trajectory of a franchise.
Typically, pro football coaches have two to three years to turn their teams around or feel the warmth of the hot seat, so the first season goes a long way in job security.
Even in a complete rebuild, a new lead skipper must point to tangible improvement after his first term. He and his staff may be tasked with developing a young quarterback or turning an underachieving club into a playoff contender.
This past offseason, seven teams hired new head coaches in hopes of a brighter future. While a couple of them have shown promising signs, a few still have a lot to prove with six weeks left in the regular season.
Based on team records, offensive and defensive rankings and player performances at key positions, we'll grade each first-year head coach, excluding Rich Bisaccia, who took over for former Las Vegas Raiders lead skipper Jon Gruden in Week 6.
Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions
Every week, head coach Dan Campbell provides interesting quotes during press conferences, though he's also had to explain why his team failed to win games.
The winless Detroit Lions have nearly pulled off notable upsets against the Baltimore Ravens, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns and tied the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet, the standings don't give credit for close calls, and the knotted score with the Steelers seemed like a disappointing consolation prize after the Lions missed a 48-yard field goal for the win in overtime.
Over the past two weeks, the Lions have lost tight battles by three- and two-point margins to the Browns and Chicago Bears, respectively.
Campbell has made changes to the chain of command, stripping offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn of his play-calling duties. Since Week 10, he's called the shots, and the Lions have scored 40 total points, which raises some concerns.
Campbell admits he's made early mistakes.
"Certainly there's things I wish I could have back," Campbell said about his new role. "But I'm growing at it as well."
The Lions have a rebuilding team and a first-time offensive play-caller learning on the fly. They're well on their way to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft.
David Culley, Houston Texans
David Culley took over a team in disarray. Before he accepted the head coaching job, quarterback Deshaun Watson requested a trade (h/t ESPN's Adam Schefter). In the following weeks, the 26-year-old signal-caller faced 22 accusations of sexual assault and misconduct.
Culley had to navigate a fluid quarterback situation with journeyman Tyrod Taylor as the starter. In the second game of the season, he suffered a hamstring injury, and rookie third-rounder Davis Mills made six consecutive starts. The veteran quarterback returned to action in Week 9.
Meanwhile, the Texans traded multiple veterans in a teardown phase. Among the most notable moves, the team dealt Pro Bowl linebacker Benardrick McKinney, starting cornerback Bradley Roby and running back Mark Ingram II, who still leads the team in carries and rushing yards.
The Texans won't win more than a handful of games, but they're 2-1 in their division with victories over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
Houston has some fight, but the club went into Week 12 with the fewest points and yards gained while giving up the third-most points and yards. The Texans won't show much promise in Culley's first year with arguably the league's worst roster.
Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars
Urban Meyer took over a Jacksonville Jaguars team that had four picks within the first two rounds of the 2021 draft, but we've yet to see much return on those premium roster investments.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick of this year's class, has flashed in spots few and far between. He's thrown for multiple touchdowns once (Week 1) and went three consecutive games without a passing score before snapping that streak Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.
For the season, Lawrence has thrown for nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 58.0 percent completion rate. The Jaguars' immediate future hinges upon the rookie signal-caller's growth. Based on his performances so far, the fanbase may start to worry if he's unable to show improvement in the remaining weeks.
Before the season started, rookie first-round running back Travis Etienne suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury.
The Jaguars' second-round picks haven't provided much help either. Cornerback Tyson Campbell is struggling in his starting role, allowing a 65.9 percent completion rate going into Week 12. As primarily a backup, offensive tackle Walker Little has suited up for four games.
Jacksonville started the campaign on a five-game skid and won its first contest against the Miami Dolphins in London. Meyer can point to one bright moment: when his team beat the Buffalo Bills 9-6 in Week 9. Other than that, his first year as an NFL head coach hasn't brought much promise to the franchise.
Robert Saleh, New York Jets
The New York Jets need to see rookie quarterback Zach Wilson progress in the second half of the season. He's thrown for just four touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a 57.6 percent completion rate in seven games.
Wilson missed four consecutive contests because of a knee injury before he suited up for Sunday's contest with the Houston Texans. The Jets have put together far better offensive performances with fourth-year pro Mike White, who started in his first game this season, and journeyman signal-caller Josh Johnson under center, scoring 34 and 30 points in Weeks 8 and 9, respectively.
On a positive note, the Jets may have found two 2021 draft gems in wide receiver Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter. The former ranks second among the club's pass-catchers for receiving yards (461), and the latter leads the team in rushing (430). They have recorded nine touchdowns combined.
Head coach Robert Saleh, who served as the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers between the 2017 and 2020 terms, deserves some blame for Gang Green's atrocious defense though.
Saleh chose to develop a young cornerback unit rather than pursue a proven veteran to shore up the secondary, which looks like a disastrous decision in hindsight without edge-rusher Carl Lawson (torn Achilles) to help out the pass rush. Going into Week 12, the Jets allowed the most passing yards, total yards and points leaguewide.
The Jets have impressive wins over the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, but they shouldn't have one of the league's worst defenses under a head coach with expertise on that side of the ball. The unit has to do more than slow down a subpar Houston Texans offense to turn the corner.
Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Sirianni may have figured out a solid blueprint for a Jalen Hurts-led offense.
Since Week 8, the Philadelphia Eagles have transitioned to a run-heavy attack with multiple ball-carriers involved in the game plan.
While Hurts remains a threat on run-pass option plays, running backs Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell have all contributed to an offense that looks similar to the Baltimore Ravens' run-dominant scheme under play-caller Greg Roman.
In four of the last five games, the Eagles have rushed for 208-plus yards, going 3-2 in that stretch.
Hurts hasn't thrown for more than 178 yards in any of the last five outings, but with the exception of Sunday's loss to the New York Giants, he's been somewhat efficient, completing at least 64.3 percent of his pass attempts in three of those games. The second-year signal-caller also routinely finds his top two pass-catchers in rookie wideout DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert on defined reads.
Meanwhile, the defense has played well as of late, allowing an average of 17.6 points per game since Week 8.
After going 2-5 to start the season, Sirianni has established an offensive identity with his team. Philadelphia ranked eighth in scoring going into Week 12. Even though the Eagles dropped to 5-7 Sunday, they're still trending in the right direction with an outside chance at a wild-card spot in the NFC.
Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons
Thus far, the Atlanta Falcons have looked inconsistent. They're 5-6 with four blowout-loss margins of 23 or more points.
When Atlanta falls short, the bottom falls out, which shows its low floor in Arthur Smith's first year. On Sunday, the Falcons bounced back with a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Falcons have one quality win, edging the New Orleans Saints 27-25 on the road in Week 9. They're a mediocre squad that cannot compete with playoff contenders, but Smith has used his offensive mind to develop both rookies and veteran players.
Smith has turned Cordarrelle Patterson into one of the league's most versatile playmakers. He's recorded a career-high 911 scrimmage yards and leads the team in touchdowns (nine).
In his first eight seasons, Patterson served as a return specialist for four different teams with occasional contributions on offense. He's filled a void on the ground and in the passing game while wideout Calvin Ridley tended to a personal matter and stepped away to address his mental well-being.
Following the departure of star wide receiver Julio Jones via trade this offseason, the Falcons needed rookie tight end Kyle Pitts to take on a big role, and he's flourished under Smith. Going into Sunday's games, the Florida product ranked sixth among rookies in catches (43) and third in receiving yards (635).
If the front line provides stronger protection around quarterback Matt Ryan, the offense can win late-season shootouts to compensate for a defense that allowed the second-most points going into Week 12.
Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers
Brandon Staley had the pressure of putting together a coaching staff that must develop quarterback Justin Herbert, who won 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year. For the most part, the second-year signal-caller looks like a budding star with a high ceiling.
While Herbert has gone through some rough patches, completing fewer than 59 percent of his passes in three of the team's five losses, he leads the league in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, which is also a credit to his supporting cast.
With Herbert under center, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams have produced at a level that shows they're one of the league's top five wide receiver duos, recording a combined 1,668 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns so far this season. As a dual threat out of the backfield, Austin Ekeler leads the Chargers in yards (1,077) and touchdowns (14) from scrimmage.
While the Chargers offense looks electric in most games, Staley must tighten up some areas of his defense.
Last year as a defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, Staley's unit gave up the fewest points and yards in the league. The Chargers defense looks more vulnerable than dominant though.
Going into Week 12, the Chargers had ceded the most rushing yards leaguewide and ranked 27th in points allowed.
Nevertheless, we cannot totally knock Staley, who's leading a team that's in contention to win its first division title since 2009.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.