Updated: Jan 22
By John Kaufman – NFL Analyst
Things move pretty fast in the NFL. As quickly as some head coaching jobs open up at the end of each season, they are snatched up with fervent velocity not long after. So, it's not exactly shocking if a few of these recent hires occurred unbeknownst to you. No worries, dear reader. That’s where I come in. Let’s just consider this your primer for keeping track of who is out, who is in, and everything in between. Here we go.
(Note – The Cleveland Browns’ recent hire of Kevin Stefanski will not be discussed in this article. Across the Board Sports writer, Chandler Adams (@ChandlerAdamss), already covered that hire in his article which can be found here.)
Out: Bill Callahan, Interim Head Coach; took over after Jay Gruden was fired in October 2019
Also out: Bruce Allen, Team President
In: Ron Rivera
Also in: Jack Del Rio, Defensive Coordinator
Talk about moving fast. Washington wasted no time in hiring Rivera to be their next head coach, as they reached a deal with their new coach on December 31, 2019, a mere two days after the 2019 season ended. Previously, Rivera was the head coach of the Carolina Panthers from 2011 until December 3, 2019, when he was let go by new Panthers owner, David Tepper. Upon firing Rivera, Tepper was quoted by NFL.com as saying:
“I just thought it was time given the way things have gone the last two seasons to put my stamp on this organization on the football side as we've done on the business side of the organization. As much respect as I have for Ron, I think a change was appropriate to build things the way I want things to be built."
Rivera had amassed a strong 64-47-1 record in his first seven seasons with Carolina. But as Tepper alluded to, Rivera had gone a lackluster 12-16 over the last two years. Tepper made it clear that it was this drop off in his recent performance that led to Rivera’s demise.
Tepper also mentioned a desire to move the franchise in a more analytical direction, something of which Rivera was not necessarily a proponent. True, he did earn the nickname “Riverboat” Ron because of his tendency to be aggressive in certain game moments, moments in which his peers would typically proceed with much more caution. However, Rivera didn’t make those decisions based upon analytic data or anything. When faced with tough choices, he simply went with his gut and with how he was feeling in the moment.
For example, in a loss to Green Bay this past November, Rivera’s team scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to make the score 24-16. Rivera decided to go for two, which if successful would have left the Panthers down six. Analytically speaking, that is the correct call to make in that situation and here’s why. If Carolina had scored another touchdown in that game, all they would have had to do was kick the extra point after that second touchdown, thus putting them up by one point and giving them a great chance to win the game in regulation.
In that instance, unfortunately, Carolina failed on the two-point try, leaving them down eight and in a situation where they would need a touchdown plus a two-point conversion to tie the game. The Panthers were going to need another touchdown in this contest regardless of the outcome of the first two-point try, but going for two on the earlier conversion attempt gives you a chance to win the game and avoid going to overtime, where a coin toss may decide your fate. It’s the right call to make, and Rivera should be applauded for making it.
But here is the downside of “Riverboat” Ron’s belly being in charge of his decision-making process. In the first quarter of that same game against Green Bay, he punted the ball on fourth and three from the Packers' 42-yard line. Analytics would tell you to go for it in that instance, especially when you have super stud Christian McCaffrey in your backfield. Rivera didn’t, but not because he knew the math and was disregarding it. He played it safely because he did what he always does: he listened to his gut. And when you do that, your decisions end up being wildly inconsistent and ultimately incorrect.
The NFL is changing before our eyes. There is more data and information available now than ever before. That’s all analytics is: it's using data and information to make better, more informed decisions. Embracing that is the only way forward. Coaches like Ron Rivera either have to adapt or they’ll find themselves without a job. The good news is, after they get fired they’ll have plenty of time to try to figure out how they fell so far behind their peers.
Out: Jason Garrett
In: Mike McCarthy
Jerry Jones finally moved on from Jason Garrett. I cannot believe this didn’t happen sooner. It felt like everyone who watches the NFL knew that Garrett was a mediocre coach at best; that he was just one of those guys who would never get over the hump. Strange that Jerry Jones – of all people – just kept putting up with that.
Garrett became the head coach of the Cowboys in week 10 of the 2010 season. He amassed an 85-67 record (.559 winning %) with Dallas, made three trips to the playoffs, winning two playoff games in those ten seasons. Those numbers scream mediocrity, and yet he just kept getting chance after chance. It truly is one of the more baffling things that has happened in the NFL in the past decade.
Like Washington, Dallas wasted little time in hiring their new head coach. After a slumber party at Jerry Jones’ house (I wish I were making that up, but I’m not), McCarthy woke up in Cowboy footie pajamas (not really). In reality, he effectively woke up as the brand-new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Technically it wasn’t official until Monday, January 6, but this deal was done days prior. And Cowboy fans couldn’t be happier. Almost any other coach would have been a step up from Garrett. But landing the reinvented McCarthy must feel like tweeting at Zendaya asking her to go to prom with you, only to have her accept your request while your friends are the perfect blend of jealous and perplexed. The phrase “dream come true” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
From 2006 to 2018, McCarthy was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. In his 13 seasons with the Packers he was 125-77-2 (.618 winning %), lead his team to nine postseason appearances, won ten playoff games, and of course, had one Super Bowl win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at the end of the 2010 season. Going solely by McCarthy’s win-loss record and playoff appearances, it seems ludicrous that Green Bay would toss him aside at the end of the 2018 season.
What did McCarthy in was the fact that, by the start of the 2018 season, the offense he ran in Green Bay had become very stale. McCarthy simply failed to incorporate any new wrinkles or pepper in any new concepts. The play calls he was making in 2018 were the same as in 2010. And that made Aaron Rodgers pretty mad.
It’s no secret that Rodgers is infamous for the grudges that he holds. According to a Bleacher Report article by Tyler Dunne, "Aaron was upset that Mike passed on him – that Mike actually verbally said that Alex Smith was a better quarterback." You see, during the 2005 draft McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, and he had a chance to take Rodgers #1 overall. He chose Alex Smith over Rodgers, and apparently Aaron never got over that. When McCarthy became Rodgers’ head coach a year later, things didn’t exactly get off to a pleasant start considering how Rodgers already felt about his new coach. And of course, things just got worse from there until McCarthy was eventually fired, albeit 13 years later. The fact that he held on that long is nothing short of a miracle. Winning, it seems, cures many ails. And winning a Super Bowl? Well that almost inoculates you against anything.
Defeating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV definitely aided in keeping McCarthy’s critics from being so loud. It probably even helped to at least somewhat temper the feud between Rodgers and McCarthy. But the question, “What have you done for me lately?” basically runs the way of thinking in the National Football League. And eight years in NFL time is like a lifetime to us fans. McCarthy’s firing in 2018 was a long time in the making. His Super Bowl win nearly a decade prior could no longer save his job. His offense had become obsolete, and his quarterback’s frustration was so apparent that Helen Keller could have painted an exact portrait of Rodgers’ angry visage. His time in Green Bay was over.
In between his stint with the Packers and his new gig in Big D, McCarthy was out of football. He took a year off from the game, but he didn't just spend his time at home wearing his comfiest pair of sweatpants and covered in Cheez-It crumbs while playing Fortnite every day. There are reports that he spent this past year reinventing himself and his offense. In that NLF.com article, Tom Pelissero reports that McCarthy spent the year “studying league trends and rebuilding playbooks to deep dives on analytics and mapping out a calendar for practices and meetings all the way through training camp. McCarthy also did a deep dive on himself, going through boxes dating to his early days as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh and with the Kansas City Chiefs to study how his philosophies have evolved over the past 30 years and where he needs to go from here.”
If McCarthy truly spent his time away from the league scrutinizing his own former tendencies and working hard to update his offensive mindset, Cowboy Nation should be overjoyed. After all, despite Aaron Rodgers’ displeasure with McCarthy, and despite McCarthy’s refusal to reinvigorate his schemes and play calling, they did win a lot of games together. Just think of what McCarthy 2.0 can do with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Suffice it to say that savory BBQ isn’t the only thing that has Cowboy fans’ mouths watering these days.
Out: Perry Fewell – interim Head Coach; took over after Ron Rivera was fired in December 2019
In: Matt Rhule
Also in: Joe Brady, Offensive Coordinator
Also also in: Phil Snow, Defensive Coordinator
Matt Rhule is the latest college football coach to test his mettle in the NFL. On January 7, the Panthers officially made Rhule their fifth ever head coach. Rhule had spent the past seven seasons turning around the programs of both Temple and Baylor. When Rhule showed up in Philadelphia in 2013, the Temple Owls were coming off a 4-7 season and had just fired Steve Addazio, their previous head coach. Rhule’s Owls did go 2-10 in his first year, but they quickly improved to 6-6 before posting identical 10-4 records in the two subsequent seasons. Rhule took Temple to two bowl games, which doesn’t sound all that amazing until you realize that before Matt Rhule came to town, the Owls had been to two bowl games total in the past 35 years. It was clear that Rhule could coach and run a program.
Temple’s impressive about-face under Rhule’s guidance attracted the attention of the Baylor Bears’ program, which was just coming off the ignominious reign of Art Briles. Baylor had just fired Briles for not responding appropriately (as in, he didn't respond at all) to a staggering number of sexual assault complaints involving his football players. Just like with Temple, Rhule again wasted no time in righting the ship down in Waco. His Bears went 1-11 in his first season (2017), but they progressed to 7-6 and then 11-3 the next two years. Once again, Matt Rhule had turned around a program in speedy fashion, this time under much more difficult circumstances. It isn’t hard to understand why the Carolina Panthers came calling this offseason. Rhule’s resumé is as impressive as anyone’s.
It should be noted that Rhule’s notable resumé does include a year of NFL experience. In 2012, the year before he took over at Temple, Rhule was an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants under Tom Coughlin. Therefore, his jump to the NFL isn’t being made for the first time. Rhule has been here before, albeit very briefly.
Coincidentally, Rhule’s new offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, also has a bit of NFL experience under his belt. Brady spent 2017 and 2018 as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints before going back to college football, where all he did was help to coordinate an LSU passing attack that annihilated most of the college football passing records. Brady’s role at LSU was as their passing game coordinator, a position that is becoming more ubiquitous in college and NFL football, but one that isn’t very well understood by the average football fan. And while that title can vary from program to program with regards to specific job responsibilities, Brady’s exact duties with LSU had him more involved in their offense than you're probably assuming.
He worked hand in hand with LSU’s offensive coordinator, Steve Ensminger, in prepping the offensive game plan each week. Specifically, Brady was directly responsible for coordinating the compact packages (bunch sets and condensed formations, etc.) as well as the empty sets in the Tigers’ offense. He came up with alignments, assignments and plays using those formations. Ensminger would call most of the plays on game days, but not all of them. If a specific situation arose which called for a bunch or empty set, Ensminger would turn over the reins to Brady. He wanted Brady to actually call the plays in those situations. It was a system that obviously worked, as the 2019 Tigers were nigh unstoppable week after week. It also earned Brady the 2019 Broyles Award, given out to the nation’s top assistant coach each year. If there’s a hotter coach in the country right now, well… wait, never mind. There isn’t a hotter coach in the country right now. Period.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers have hired Phil Snow as their defensive coordinator. Snow spent the last seven years as Matt Rhule’s defensive coordinator at both Baylor and Temple. Snow’s impact at both schools is apparent. According to statistics posted on Baylor University’s website, his defense “led the AAC in defense in both 2015 and 2016. The 2016 defense ranked third nationally in total defense (allowing just 282.5 yards per game) and 11th in scoring (18.4 ppg) to help lead TU to an AAC championship and 10-4 record.” Additionally, “the 2014 Owls' defense ranked fourth nationally in scoring (17.5 ppg, an improvement from 29.8 the previous season). Temple made 30 takeaways to rank among the top five programs nationally (including a nation's-best 19 fumble recoveries). The unit allowed just 186.9 passing yards and nine TD passes on the season.”
Like Rhule and Brady, Snow’s track record is impressive indeed. The future of the Carolina Panthers seems to be in very good hands.
New York Giants:
Out: Pat Shurmur
In: Joe Judge
Also in: Jason Garrett, Offensive Coordinator
I’m sorry. Who?
If that was your reaction to the New York Giants’ new head coaching hire, I promise that you weren’t the only one scratching your head in bewilderment. When the Giants announced on Tuesday, January 7, their intention to hire Joe Judge, I thought for sure that they had been playing Franchise Mode in Madden for like 15 seasons and the game just made up the coach's name. I mean, c’mon. Joe Judge? What, were Bob Johnson, Steve Wilson and Tom Smith taken already? You can’t fool me, Madden. Joe Judge has to be a made-up person.
As it turns out, Joe Judge is an actual human being. Who knew?
Judge has spent the last eight seasons with the New England Patriots, having a few different titles within the organization. From 2015 through 2018 he was New England’s special teams coordinator. In 2019 he was asked to add wide receivers coach to his special teams coordinating duties. Earlier in his career, from 2012-14 specifically, he was a special teams assistant in New England. The 2012 season was his first as an NFL coach. From 2009 through 2011, he coached at Alabama where he was also a special teams assistant with the Crimson Tide.
Judge’s hiring was slightly shocking simply because his name really hadn’t been tossed around at all as a potential candidate for any of the four teams mentioned in this article. He truly did come out of nowhere. It is somewhat ironic that the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, who was on everyone’s list as a potential head coaching hire, ended up staying put in New England, whereas Joe Judge – who most non-Patriots fans had never even heard of merely two weeks ago – ended up with one of the 32 NFL head coaching jobs. Leave it to Dave Gettleman and the New York Giants to do something that makes little to no sense.
So, what do know about Mr. Judge? Not a whole lot, if we’re being honest. Pro Football Focus had New England’s special teams graded in the top 10 in each of his five seasons as the coordinator. That’s… something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying his success with the Patriots’ special teams, nor am I trying to minimize the importance of good special teams play in general. I just don’t know how success at running special teams correlates with being a head coach. Maybe it does. I mean, John Harbaugh was a special teams coach for several different college and NFL teams from 1988 through 2007 before taking the reins in Baltimore in 2008, and he has clearly been one of the best head coaches in the NFL throughout his tenure. So perhaps there is a correlation.
On the other side of that coin, however, is the fact that NFL franchises aren’t exactly running out to hire former special teams coaches whenever they have the chance. In fact, none of the other three new hires I talked about in this article have any special teams experience on their resumés. And that makes sense to us, doesn’t it? When teams are thinking about hiring a new head coach, we are used to hearing about the candidate’s history of running an offense or a defense, or perhaps coaching a specific position on either side of the ball. Potential hires having mostly spent time focusing on running special teams are pretty darn rare.
But just because candidates of that nature are rare doesn’t mean they can’t do the job. And, if we look with a sharper eye at some NFL head coaches – both past and present – who cut their teeth on coaching special teams, it seems that there just may be something inherently valuable about these types of coaches after all.
I already mentioned John Harbaugh’s experience with special teams. But did you know that Mike Ditka coached special teams in Dallas for nine seasons with Tom Landry? Likewise, Dick Vermeil got his start with the Rams back in 1969 handling their kicking and return team’s duties. Marv Levy spent time coordinating both the Eagles and Rams special teams before impressively running the show in Buffalo. And by this point I think we all know that Bill Belichick came up as a special teams coach as well.
To say that these fellas are good coaches is juuuuust a bit of a slight on my part. These coaches are some of the very best (and in Belichick’s case, the undisputed best) head coaches of all time. Here is where they rank on the list of head coaching wins in NFL history:
Harbaugh – 35th (118 wins) Vermeil – 34th (120 wins) Ditka – 33rd (121 wins)
Levy – 21st (143 wins)
Belichick – 3rd (273 wins)
Remarkable, right? And again, these gents all got their start coaching special teams.
Now, I am by no means declaring that coaching special teams is a guarantee of becoming a successful head coach. But I think it’s more than fair to say that preemptively writing off new hires like Joe Judge as preordained flops because of their origins in special teams would be a massive mistake. A background in special teams does not mean that Joe Judge is definitively on the path toward becoming a successful head coach in the NFL. But it certainly doesn’t indicate that he can’t do the job. Judge’s future is as undecided as any other recent NFL hire. But we do know one thing is for certain:
He is going to be in Madden 21 now.
And no one had to conjure him up to get him there.
John Kaufman Across the Board Sports