Grading NFL's First-Year Head Coaches as End of Season Nears
Two weeks and one game remain in the 2021 NFL regular season. While it's too early to fully judge this year's cycle of rookie head coaches, we can grade their inaugural performances.
It's important to remember that it takes time for regimes to develop and succeed. Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor, for example, went 6-25-1 in his first two seasons at the helm. Now with the right roster pieces in place, though, he has Cincinnati on the cusp of the postseason and playing like a potential Super Bowl contender.
Wins and losses matter, but records will only be part of the equation here. We'll also consider factors like team talent level—and whether squads are under- or overachieving—roster health, how teams performed previously and any relevant recent trends.
How have the 2021 NFL rookie head coaches fared thus far? Let's take a look. Coaches are listed in alphabetical order.
Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions didn't notch their first win until Week 13, but the job head coach Dan Campbell has done is admirable. After Detroit traded away quarterback Matthew Stafford and lost top receiver Kenny Golladay in free agency, little talent was left.
Detroit's talent level has further been tested by the absences of star running back D'Andre Swift (shoulder) and starting quarterback Jared Goff (oblique injury, reserve/COVID-19 list).
Yet, the Lions have played a determined brand of football all season under Campbell, who is undoubtedly a player's coach. The team's belief in him eventually led to success and what appears to be a bright future.
"It's not always going to be fun. It's hard work. There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it. But you want to see it start to pay dividends and I feel like we're starting to get there now," Campbell said on NFL Network's Good Morning Football (h/t Jeff Risdon of Lions Wire).
Detroit tied the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10, beat the Minnesota Vikings and then blew out the potentially playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals in Week 15. Meanwhile, players like linebacker Charles Harris and rookie wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown have emerged as standouts.
Campbell is building a foundation and a culture that can yield success with a more talented roster. This is a team that ranks just 29th in scoring and 25th in points allowed and is still a team that opponents can't feel comfortable facing down the stretch.
He hasn't been good enough to make Detroit a winner, but Campbell has done well with what he's been handed.
David Culley, Houston Texans
Like Campbell, David Culley took over a team short on talent and big on questions. Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson requested a trade from the Houston Texans in the offseason and has not seen the field in 2021.
Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints from women who have accused him of sexual assault or misconduct, and his future likely isn't in Houston.
Culley has flipped between journeyman quarterback Tyrod Taylor and rookie Davis Mills—both because of Taylor's early-season hip injury and performance. While Davis has shown glimpses of promise (passer rating of 86.2), subpar quarterback play has hampered the offense. Houston ranks 32nd in total offense and 30th in scoring.
The defense under Culley and coordinator Lovie Smith hasn't been much better. It ranks 30th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed. A pass rush that parted with J.J. Watt in the offseason has generated a mere 30 sacks on the season.
The results have been underwhelming in Houston, to say the least. However, it would be unfair to give Culley a failing grade. This is a squad that won only four games with Watson at quarterback a year ago. Without Watson, it's arguably the worst roster in the NFL. Still the Texans continue to show fight, upsetting the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16.
It will be interesting to see how Culley can fare if general manager Nick Caserio restocks the proverbial cupboard in 2022.
Urban Meyer, Jacksonville Jaguars
Urban Meyer's tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars ended after only 13 games. The fact that Jacksonville (now 2-13) hasn't won without Meyer is about the only thing defending Meyer's run. Jacksonville is not a talented team.
Bad roster or not, Meyer failed the Jaguars in many ways, on and off the field. After a loss to the Bengals, he stayed in Ohio instead of flying back with the team. According to a report from NFL Media's Tom Pelissero, Meyer labeled his assistant coaches as losers, "challenging each coach individually to explain when they've ever won and forcing them to defend their resumes."
Then, there was a claim from former Jags kicker Josh Lambo that Meyer had kicked him during pregame warmups.
Combined with a bad on-field product, it was too much for franchise owner Shad Khan to endure, and Meyer was fired. And the product on the field was very bad. Jacksonville picked up quality wins over the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins but has had few other positives.
Rookie quarterback and No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence has not performed like an emerging star—he has 14 interceptions and a passer rating of just 70.6. Meyer abandoned star running back James Robinson following a fumble, which didn't sit well with his quarterback.
"I don't really get into that, but I know, and I voiced my opinion: James is one of our best players, and he's got to be in the game," Lawrence said, per ESPN's Michael DiRocco.
Jacksonville ranks 27th in points allowed and dead-last in scoring—and will finish the year without Robinson following Sunday's torn Achilles. The Jaguars were bad last year, they're not any better with Lawrence on the roster, and Meyer is already gone.
Robert Saleh, New York Jets
The New York Jets haven't been complete pushovers this season, as evidenced by wins over the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals. However, two big issues lead to coach Robert Saleh getting a near-failing grade in Year 1.
The first is the development of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, or the lack thereof. While not every signal-caller is going to be a star coming out of college, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft has largely been a disaster.
A knee injury forced Wilson out of four games, but he has thrown for only 2,013 yards, seven touchdowns, 11 interceptions and has a rating of 65.9.
Wilson cut down on the interceptions following his return from injury but has still shown few signs of progress. Wilson has not completed more than 64percent of his passes or posted a rating higher than 89.6 in any of his games since coming back. His lack of development falls on offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and the guy who hired him, Saleh.
The other issue is that Saleh is a defensive coach—he was the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator before taking the Jets job—and his defense has been a huge liability. New York ranks dead-last in both points and yards allowed.
There's time for Saleh to turn things around. However, with a putrid defense and a quarterback who still seems in over his head, he doesn't carry much positive momentum into 2022.
Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles
One could argue that Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni has done the best job of any of this season's first-year guys. The Eagles are firmly in the NFC playoff hunt and are playing like a team that no one will want to face.
The Eagles rank fifth in total defense, 13th in total offense, ninth in scoring and 11th in points allowed.
What's remarkable is just how far this team has come since 2020. Under Doug Pederson, the Eagles finished last season 20th in points allowed, 26th in scoring and with a measly 4-11-1 record.
Sirianni's handling of second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts has also been impressive. Hurts may never develop into a traditional pocket passer, but Sirianni has played to Hurts' dual-threat strengths and has helped transform him into a viable starter.
Hurts has already topped 700 rushing yards, 2,800 passing yards and has a combined 26 passing and rushing touchdowns. There's no guarantee that Hurts is the long-term answer at quarterback, but what he and Sirianni have done together this season is working.
"Hurts and the Eagles offense are doing things we haven't seen in years, dominating on the ground like we haven't seen, well, ever," Eytan Shander of PhillyVoice wrote. "The offensive line is rotating each week and it doesn't even matter. Their run game isn't suffering. It's thriving."
With a surging defense and the league's top-ranked rushing attack, Sirianni's Eagles will be a problem for any postseason opponent if they get in. That's a credit to the turnaround he has orchestrated in Year 1.
Arthur Smith, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons aren't as talent-starved as teams like Detroit, Houston and Jacksonville. However, they do lack many of the key pieces that a successful season requires.
The Falcons traded away star receiver Julio Jones in the offseason. They lost new No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley when he decided to step away from football to focus on his mental health. They don't have a ton of defensive talent aside from Pro Bowl snub A.J. Terrell, and their pass rush (16 sacks) is virtually nonexistent.
Atlanta does still have quarterback Matt Ryan and rookie standout Kyle Pitts. However, this is a roster that ranks 26th in total offense, 24th in total defense, 25th in scoring and 28th in points allowed.
Yet, head coach Arthur Smith has cobbled pieces together and prevented Atlanta from being a laughingstock. Unlocking the potential of former return All-Pro Cordarrelle Patterson has played a huge part in that.
Patterson has morphed into an all-around offensive threat—one with more than 500 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards and 11 combined touchdowns.
Smith's Falcons may not make the postseason, but they've already won three more games than they did a year ago. Smith is still in the hunt for a winning record, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that—with a little more help in the receiving and pass-rushing departments—he can make Atlanta a playoff team in 2022.
Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers
How much better are the Los Angeles Chargers than a year ago? That's the big question when grading first-year coach Brandon Staley. L.A. is in the playoff mix now but was 7-9 in 2020 under Anthony Lynn, who was let go.
Sunday's embarrassing loss to the Houston Texans is a red mark on Staley's first-year test—though it's worth noting that the Chargers were without standout running back Austin Ekeler. Other concerns with Staley have been season-long.
Staley is a gambler who had gone for it on fourth down 26 times entering Week 16. His aggressive strategy hasn't always paid off, though, like in the Week 15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. L.A. turned the ball over on downs twice inside the Kansas City 5-yard line and once from the Chiefs' 28. The Chargers went on to lose in overtime.
Defensively, Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill have struggled to find answers against the run. The Chargers rank 29th against the run and 27th in yards per carry allowed. Their defense has allowed the second-most points per game.
On a positive note, Staley has helped avoid a second-year regression by quarterback Justin Herbert, and L.A.'s fourth-ranked total offense has been spectacular at times. Yet, this is a squad that has lost three of its last five after finishing the 2020 season on a four-game winning streak.
The Chargers may make the postseason, but they are not decidedly better than they were under Lynn one year ago. The good news for Chargers fans is that the team also isn't decidedly worse.