NFL coaching changes

As each season comes to a close, NFL coaches fly around the league’s sidelines as teams attempt to find a new face to manage their personnel. This year was no different, as seven teams will begin the 2015 season with a new head coach. The various hires are listed here from worst hire to best.

Denver Broncos: Gary Kubiak

Most recent job: Offensive Coordinator (OC), Baltimore Ravens; Career wins-losses as a head coach: 61–64

This hire is somewhat confusing. The Broncos might be preparing for a future without quarterback Peyton Manning as we once knew him, but none of the Bronco’s personnel is proven in Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, and the team was built to pass anyways. The Broncos’ success waned rapidly as they shifted to a running-focused attack at the end of last season, culminating in a playoff loss to the vastly inferior Indianapolis Colts. Now they hired a coach who is known for his running strategy and not much else. This hire is just confusing.

Chicago Bears: John Fox

Head Coach (HC), Denver Broncos; 118–89

John Fox clearly has a knack for developing defensive talent, which makes him quite a good fit with Chicago’s barren roster in a vacuum. The Panthers and Broncos teams both improved vastly on defense every season with him at the helm. The problem here is with John Fox on the sideline: he is absolutely atrocious as a game manager. He consistently makes needlessly conservative play calls that have cost his teams high profile games (re-watch the Broncos vs. Ravens playoff game from 2013 and try not to cringe as Fox attempts to run the clock out rather than have Peyton Manning try for the win). He is a mess with the timeouts, often burning them to do things like ice kickers rather than strategically stop the clock or substitute players on the field. Fox also tends to challenge at horrible moments, seemingly throwing his challenge flag the first two times he disagrees with a call rather than waiting for high leverage moments with lots of yards involved where winning the challenge might actually matter. Given this Bears’ team’s defensive woes, John Fox was probably a decent hire, but not a good one.

San Francisco 49ers: Adam Tomsula

Defensive Coordinator (DC), San Francisco 49ers

This is a sensible hire. It is unfortunate that we don’t get to see Jim Harbaugh’s creativity and exquisite abilities for player development in the NFL anymore, but his relationship with the front office broke down so publicly and uncomfortably that a change was probably necessary.
Tomsula is a solid defensive coordinator, consistently developing talent and putting together a string of successful seasons. Many of the players who leave the 49ers defense, such as Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson and Browns safety Donte Whitner, go flame out on lesser teams, so he seems to understand how to maximize a player’s talent. We know nothing about his offensive acumen, and historically there is a learning curve for coordinators in their first head coaching job. However, hiring in-house means there will be some continuity and there’s certainly potential for this decision to look very good very quickly.

Atlanta Falcons: Dan Quinn

DC, Seattle Seahawks

There are certainly things to like about Quinn’s head coaching potential. He is a fantastic play caller, and has a plethora of signature games to point to if one questions his defensive strategies, including Super Bowl XLVIII. This has the potential to be a great coaching hire, since the Falcons have some defensive talent in players like cornerback Desmond Trufant, just not enough to build a functional NFL defense. The Falcons will improve vastly if Dan Quinn is merely a bad coach, as former head coach Mike Smith had to be the worst tactician in the NFL, constantly blowing every single opportunity he had to change the game from the sidelines. The problem here is that Quinn succeeded with a very specific team building style in Seattle. Atlanta does not have close to a similar roster. Quinn will presumably continue to be excellent from the sidelines, but it’s possible that his schemes may be an awkward fit for a year or two.

New York Jets: Todd Bowles

DC, Arizona Cardinals

Todd Bowles just turned in a season for the ages with Arizona. Defensive talent dropped like flies, as the Cardinals were probably at less than 50 percent strength for most of the season. However, for the first ten weeks of the year, Bowles ran one of the three best defenses in the league. This shows schematic flexibility and a keen eye for reaction. While the Jets have not had a functional offense since quarterback Brett Favre spent a year in green, the defense was actually a bigger problem last year. There is absolutely no talent on the roster defensively outside of defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Mohammed Wilkerson. Bowles’s success with unfamiliar faces could help rebuild the defense, making it much easier to create an offense.

Oakland Raiders: Jack Del Rio

DC, Denver Broncos; 68–71

The future in Oakland is… bright? Jack Del Rio does not get enough credit for how great of a job he did in Jacksonville. If it weren’t for an unfortunate injury in week 17 to quarterback David Garrard, Del Rio would have reached the playoffs in three consecutive years with the moribund franchise.
Del Rio managed to build top ten defenses nearly every year there, and the offenses were functional if not great. People forget how great those 2007 Jaguars were, and that at halftime it felt like they might topple the mighty and undefeated Patriots. The 2005 Jaguars were a great team as well, and these squads always seemed as if they were teetering on the precipice of something great while producing tons of productive players including players with very little pedigree before entering the NFL. This bodes well for Oakland, which has a fairly young core of talent.

Now, Del Rio, who is particularly good at coaching linebackers, will have young linebackers Khalil Mack and Sio Moore under his tutelage. Both are among the NFL’s most productive linebackers despite being very unpolished. There’s no reason to believe Del Rio can’t turn that raw talent into superstardom. Add in his success at turning mediocre talents like Garrard into decent contributors, and there is potential that Del Rio can turn quarterback Derek Carr, who was better than most give him credit for in a bumpy rookie season, into something special.

Del Rio could take this franchise in the right direction for the first time in over a decade.

Buffalo Bills: Rex Ryan

HC, New York Jets; 46–50

Ryan really got the short end of the stick at the Meadowlands. He was scapegoated as a reason for the Jets’ offensive woes, and his boisterousness with the media got him publicly labeled as a distraction. Of course, neither of these things make sense. Ryan was largely frozen out of personnel decisions, and he never even had an average team. The two Jets teams he dragged to the AFC Championship Game were mediocre squads at best, optimized by Ryan’s defensive schemes.

Ryan catches lots of flak for not being able to develop a Jets’ franchise quarterback, but it is hard to see his options approaching that label. For what it’s worth, quarterback Mark Sanchez was slightly more productive in New York than he was under supposed quarterback guru Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. Don’t let Ryan’s record fool you: an average coach would probably top out at six wins per year rather than eight with the talent Ryan was given, and this year’s Jets team might’ve been one of the least talented in league history. This Bills team in particular, however, is a much better version of the 2010 Jets Rex Ryan coached so successfully.

A more talented run game and defense will help disguise the lack of a solid quarterback, as will wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who is very talented. Ryan’s hire is exciting for an improving Bills team.