From cellar dwellers to playoffs contenders. It helps to have an established quarterback.
NFL stands for “Not For Long," as evidenced each December-January when a handful of head coaches get fired and a new crop steps off the carousel with promise of a brighter future. Unfortunately the new head coaches frequently enter unstable organizations with major holes in the roster, and players that don’t necessarily fit the schemes they wish to implement.
Still, NFL head coach is a dream come true -- even head coach of the Cleveland Browns, as the daughter of the most recently fired Browns top dog Mike Pettine put it. As the 2016 NFL season nears its regular-season kickoff, let’s see how the coaches in their first year on the job stack up, ranked in order of projected record.
Chip Kelly -- San Francisco 49ers
In 2014, if you asked Chip Kelly where he’d be in 2016 after two 10-6 season in Philadelphia, there’s a 0% chance he could have answered, "San Francisco with Blaine Gabbert supplanting Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers starting quarterback." Yet here he is, with a roster devoid of much talent after a retirement and free agency exodus in 2015, and some poor drafts. Kelly will test the league (and his own players) with his high-tempo offense and perhaps add some “emotional intelligence” to his toolbox as Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie implied Kelly could use to relate to his players. The 49ers’ offense lacks depth and it just got worse due to wide receiver Bruce Ellington’s season-ending ACL tear. Kelly’s 49ers will also face the league’s most difficult schedule (on paper) with six games versus the NFC West teams and four against the AFC East.
Hue Jackson -- Cleveland Browns
The infamous Cleveland Browns QB nameplate jersey is retired, but the struggle continues as Hue Jackson will need all his creativity and wizardry to repair Robert Griffin III behind an offensive line that lost starters Alex Mack (C) and Mitchell Schwartz (RT) in free agency. There’s some talent on offense for Jackson (RB Duke Johnson, TE Gary Barnidge, WR Josh Gordon come Week 5). But Jackson wants to see more out of Griffin, who will play in the fourth preseason game after taking five sacks in one half against the Bucs last week.
The former Bengals offensive coordinator accepted a tough hand. He's the the Browns’ fifth head coach since the start of the 2009 season. And it will be tough sledding against the solid AFC North that’s seen more stability than any division with Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh and Marvin Lewis among the six longest-tenured HCs in the league.
Adam Gase -- Miami Dolphins
Gase entered the offseason as perhaps the most attractive head coaching candidate after successful stints as offensive coordinator in Denver and Chicago. He’s got a mixed-bag situation after an offseason that saw the Dolphins get worse, not better, by acquiring Eagles castoff Byron Maxwell’s robust contract, missing out on rusher C.J. Anderson, lifting Olivier Vernon’s tag in favor of Mario Williams, and so on. At least they grabbed OT Laremy Tunsil in the draft when other teams didn’t have the guts.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has his work cut out for him, while Miami faithful will hope that Gase can work his QB magic with Ryan Tannehill, beginning with helping him avoid so many darn sacks (184 sacks in four seasons). Gase helped Cutler succeed in Chicago last year with a less talented (and less injured) WR corps than he’s got in Miami, so there's hope.
TNS via Getty ImagesMiami Herald
Doug Pederson -- Philadelphia Eagles
As the Eagles expunged remnants of the Chip Kelly era, they reached back into their past for a former Eagles quarterback, QB coach and most recently, Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Maybe not their first choice, but now Pederson’s the guy, and Carson Wentz is his QB after GM Howie Roseman mortgaged the future by trading a package of picks for the NDSU product. (But first, it will be Sam Bradford.)
Pederson will use a run-heavy approach as he did successfully with the Chiefs, although that task may get harder (as expected) if the Birds lose right tackle Lane Johnson for 10 games after a PED violation. There’s talent at every level of the defense with DT Fletcher Cox, LB Jordan Hicks and safety Malcolm Jenkins, and the unit stands to improve (after flatlining in Week 10 in 2015) with Jim Schwartz taking over and employing a 4-3 scheme.
Getty ImagesMitchell Leff
Mike Mularkey -- Tennessee Titans
This is not Mularkey’s first rodeo (16-32 combined in head coaching stints with the Bills and Jaguars, not counting his 2-7 record as the Titans’ interim in 2015), but it is the first time he’s said he wants to play an “exotic smashmouth” style of offense he used in Pittsburgh from 2001-03 with Kordell Stewart (Slash!).
"Exotic Smashmouth" is your new fantasy team name if you own DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry, both of whom should get heavy usage, along with Marcus Mariota taking more turns as a runner. The Titans have an uninspiring group of receivers, none of whom caught more than 36 passes last season. Mariota certainly has rushing chops, but the Titans might have Cadillac and it seems they’re going to drive him over potholes in a snowstorm. On defense, Dick LeBeau’s crew should improve with top CB Jason McCourty returning to good health and Arizona’s Rashad Johnson taking over at free safety.
Getty ImagesFrederick Breedon
Dirk Koetter -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After Lovie Smith surprisingly got canned, the Bucs acted fast to promote their offensive coordinator who led QB Jameis Winston through some growing pains. Now the training wheels come off. The offensive-minded Koetter will have the luxury of a young and improving QB, a solid rushing attack with Doug Martin and Charles Sims and a top-heavy WR corps with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson.
But the defense, specifically a fairly disastrous secondary/pass defense, may keep the Bucs from contending for a playoff spot. That problem is now former Falcons head coach Mike Smith’s to fix as the new defensive coordinator. Tampa’s top cornerback at this point is past-his-prime 33-year-old Brent Grimes, while first-round draft pick Vernon Hargreaves learns the ropes. For entertainment purposes at least, there’s always Miko Grimes’ Twitter account.
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Ben McAdoo -- New York Giants
Promoted to head coach after serving as offensive coordinator for two seasons, McAdoo finds himself in the best situation among the first-year head coaches. The first order of business is/was figuring out how to avert disaster in late-game situations, which McAdoo commissioned a 6-person task force to address. The Giants’ $200 million spending spree on defense, highlighted by additions of DE Olivier Vernon and DT Damon Harrison -- upgrading a defensive line from wet paper bag status -- will help the problem.
The offensive line is a concern, but if Eli Manning can get enough time to throw, he’s got some major weapons on Odell Beckham Jr., impressive rookie Sterling Shepard, a possibly (finally) healthy Victor Cruz and a rushing attack that may feature Rashad Jennings instead of a sputtering four-man committee as in 2015. McAdoo could still also use another suit that actually fits him.