Sports

The NFL's New Trend This Off-Season: New Head Coaches Are Actually New

Four of the five head coach hires so far this NFL off-season have no prior head-coaching experience in the league. So what do they bring to their teams?
January 27, 2017, 2:00pm
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The hirings and firings of NFL head coaches is an annual ritual at this point; out go the guys with 7-9 records, and in comes the fresh faces meant to herald the next chapter of that franchise.

Except usually that fresh face has been around the block: teams tended to stick with known head-coach commodities—Rex Ryan, John Fox, Mike Mularkey via the interim tag—despite their documented flaws and failings.

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This off-season, however, a different trend has emerged. Outside of Doug Marrone, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars permanently hired at the position earlier this month, the four other head coaches NFL teams have brought on are all brand new (and if reports about the 49ers are correct, Atlanta Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan will become make five after the Super Bowl).

2017 Off-Season Coaching Hires

Team

New Coach

Career NFL Record

BUF

Sean McDermott

0-0

DEN

Vance Joseph

0-0

JAC

Doug Marrone

16-18

LAC

Anthony Lynn

0-0

LAR

Sean McVay

0-0

SF

Kyle Shanahan*

0-0

* not finalized

This makes next season a little more difficult to forecast. When teams hire retread coaches, you add a dash of what their career-to-date says, look at trends to determine some boom/bust potential, and come up with a surprisingly effective look into the future—head coaches can influence a team's record and splits more than you'd think. Coming into Buffalo, for instance, Rex Ryan was known for benching skill position players like crazy, and his defenses had started to be less effective. When Ryan became the Bills head coach in 2015, a defense that had been first in DVOA in 2014 under Jim Schwartz crashed and burned, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor went from savior to the outs in a hurry.

Read More: Do NFL Coach Firings Make Any Immediate Difference?

Without head-coaching track records to read like tea leaves, we need to search elsewhere for clues—namely, the units these coaches controlled. We've already looked at what Shanahan does and what he can bring to a team. Let's take a look at the other new guys.

Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills

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McDermott took over for his mentor, legendary Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, as Johnson's health declined in 2009. The Eagles defense finished third in DVOA that season, but fell to eleventh in 2010 and McDermott, scapegoated for the decline, was fired at the end of the season. He was hired to be Carolina's defensive coordinator days later, just in time for the entire team's 2011 collapse. So far, not so good, but McDermott would pull his unit up from dead last in DVOA to eleventh in 2012. The Panthers would go on to have three top-ten defenses, per DVOA, in four years under McDermott before the Bills hired him away to fix what Rex Ryan broke.

McDermott led some pretty good defenses in Carolina. Photo by Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills let Greg Roman go during the season, and Anthony Lynn became Chargers head coach, so we're not sure what to expect there or how much McDermott will delegate until an offensive coordinator is named. But you can bet that the Bills will rebound at least a little bit on defense from a scheme that players complained was overly complex. Ryan liked to be creative, but over the past couple years the creativity became overly cute. McDermott is a fan of the simple things: the double a-gap blitz that brings both middle linebackers right at the quarterback, for example.

Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos

Joseph has only been an NFL coordinator for one year: last year's Dolphins defense, which finished middle-of-the-pack in DVOA (19th) but did improve over 2015. Joseph was tasked with coaching a secondary that instantly lost star safety Reshad Jones, and had only one reliable corner in Byron Maxwell. So, given the lack of established talent, it says something for Joseph's abilities that the Dolphins were able to play pass defense occasionally.

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Before the Dolphins, Joseph had been a defensive backs coach for a whopping ten seasons. He oversaw the development of some good young secondary players during those years, such as Glover Quin, DaShon Goldson, Tarell Brown, Kareem Jackson, Shawn Williams, and Dre Kirkpatrick. How that translates to a Denver team that already had a good secondary but let defensive coordinator Wade Phillips depart for the Rams is anybody's guess. The Broncos will also have a new offensive coordinator in Mike McCoy, who has proven adaptable, with a slight preference for grinding clock. It's possible the Broncos will have turned over an entire coaching staff to get right back to where they were last year, but we'll have to wait and see.

Anthony Lynn, San Diego Chargers

Lynn had been a running backs coach for 11 seasons, including under Rex Ryan on the Jets and then the Bills. Then, this season, it all happened so fast: he was promoted to offensive coordinator when Greg Roman was fired after a 0-2 start; he became interim head coach after Ryan was fired, and finally was the league's lead head-coaching candidate. Practically every team interviewed him.

Lynn did a decent job as offensive lead for the Bills this season using the blueprint Roman left behind after Buffalo's shakeup. Before that, however, his career as a backs coach was a series of failed running back projects. With the Jaguars in 2003-04, Fred Taylor was already an established star. In Dallas in 2005 and 2006, Lynn watched Julius Jones play more than Marion Barber III. The decline of Jamaal Lewis in 2007 and 2008 for the Browns, with no other options behind him. And then, with the Jets, Thomas Jones held off the ultimately disappointing Shonn Greene. I'm not saying that Lynn is a bad running backs coach, just that the output that we saw from his position was never surprising or outstanding outside of Taylor.

Lynn was this off-season's No. 1 head-coaching prospect. Photo by Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Between Lynn and Gus Bradley coordinating defense, the Chargers will have to deal with a lot of enthusiastic clapping. On paper, it's as uninspiring as the team's short-lived, much-mocked logo. But I have a feeling nobody actually knows how good Lynn is at this job yet, because he's never had much of a position of power.

Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

As the youngest NFL head coach in history, the 31-year-old McVay has a lot of doubts to overcome and respect to earn. At the same time, he's also has a proven track record in his three years as Washington offensive coordinator. Washington has one of the best pass offenses in the NFL over the past few seasons, and they've done it without a premium talent at the quarterback position—McVay should get quite a bit of credit for that success. Separating him from Jay Gruden is tough to do from an outside perspective, but considering McVay called the plays, it's a good bet he's owed credit.

I'm optimistic on the Rams' ability to rebound next year with McVay and Wade Phillips in tow. Phillips is one of the best coordinators in the business, and as long as they can upgrade the talent at cornerback, the Rams should be able to put a hurting on offenses up front. McVay has to heal quarterback Jared Goff and the offensive line, but he oversaw the development of several nice pieces on the line in Washington and Kirk Cousins' ascent into respectability.

It's tough to suss out exactly what each coach will be and do from the outside, because we don't have a great idea what they're all about. It makes it harder to forecast teams, but it's also refreshing to see the league head this direction in terms of more experimental hiring. The NFL is still perceived as the ultimate boy's club, so it's nice when teams looking for new head coaches find someone who is actually new.

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