2020 NFL coaching carousel review, Pt. 1

After spilling more than 2,500 words in last year’s review of new head-coaching hires, I have decided to make this winter’s recap a bit more efficient. (Well, kind of. I have a tendency to get long-winded.)

In Part One, we’ll take a look at last year’s hires. In Part Two, I will take a look at the attractiveness of each opening and grade this winter’s new crop of coaches.

Let’s start with last year’s new coaches.

Ron Rivera (Washington Football Team)
Hire grade: A
2020 grade: A-

Washington really had no business winning seven games and playing the NFC champion Buccaneers to within eight points in the wildcard playoffs. That they did any of it is a testament to Ron Rivera and the work he did in the nation’s capital.

Rivera turned a talented defensive unit into one of the league’s best in 2020. Washington finished the season second in total defense, third in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and fourth in points allowed per game. Defensive end Chase Young was the runaway winner of this season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award. This unit looks poised to torment the NFC East for years to come.

The offense in Washington, however, was as bad as the defense was good. Rivera’s team finished the season ranked 25th in points scored per game, 30th in total offense and 32nd in offensive DVOA. Much of that performance can be blamed on the black hole at quarterback, but there are talented pieces on the offense that Rivera must coach up to keep Washington on the ascent.

Rivera has this team pointed in the right direction. Owner Daniel Snyder (how is he still allowed to own this team?) hired Martin Mayhew as General Manager this winter, which allows Rivera to focus solely on getting Washington back to the postseason. If Rivera is successful, it would mark the team’s first back-to-back playoff appearances since the early 1990s.

Matt Rhule (Carolina Panthers)
Hire grade: B+
2020 grade: B+

Matt Rhule’s maiden voyage has always been a challenge. In Year One at Temple, Rhule led the Owls to a 2–10 record. Things got worse at Baylor, as the Bears went 1–11 in Rhule’s first year on the job.

Much of Carolina’s struggles in Rhule’s first year as an NFL coach came from the absence of All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, who played in just three games all season. Teddy Bridgewater, while solid, is not the type of quarterback who can help a team overcome the loss of a player like McCaffrey.

There is a lot of work for Rhule to do this offseason and beyond. Carolina needs a long-term answer at quarterback — Bridgewater isn’t it — and must improve the offensive line responsible for keeping its quarterback upright. The Panthers won’t have a ton of cap space heading into next season but can create additional room with a few logical roster moves.

Rhule was given time to build this franchise into a contender. Look no further than the seven-year deal Rhule inked last year as evidence of Panthers owner David Tepper’s patience with this rebuild. With that being said, Rhule needs to show progress in 2021. After failing to acquire Matthew Stafford from Detroit, the Panthers could accelerate their rebuild by piecing together a deal for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. McCaffrey, Watson and offensive coordinator Joe Brady would instantly make the Panthers offense one of the NFL’s most intriguing and dangerous units.

Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland Browns)
Hire grade: B-
2020 grade: A+

Let’s start with the obvious: Kevin Stefanski was the obvious choice to win NFL Coach of the Year.

Stefanski is the first Browns coach to tally 11 career victories in Cleveland since Romeo Crennel … who was fired 12 years ago. Take a moment to let that settle. No Cleveland coach in the last dozen seasons tallied 11 total victories and Stefanski did it in his first season. He earned Cleveland its first playoff berth since George W. Bush’s first term and its highest single-season victory total since Bill Clinton was in his early years as president.

There is stability in Cleveland for the first time since the team returned to the league in 1999. The Browns have established an identity as a physical team, which will do them well in the AFC North. The team has leaders on both sides of the ball and Stefanski was smart enough to not only identify that, but encourage Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett to take on leadership roles within the team.

Maintaining success is just as hard as achieving it, but for the first time in decades, the Browns look poised to do so thanks to Kevin Stefanski.

Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys)
Hire grade: C+
2020 grade: C+

Grading Mike McCarthy’s first season in Dallas is difficult so his grade will not change as we head into the 2021 offseason.

McCarthy was the only coach on this list to lose his franchise quarterback this season. Rivera, Rhule and Judge never had one, and Baker Mayfield has not missed a game since taking over the starting job in 2018. Losing not just a starting quarterback, but one of the best young quarterbacks in the game in Dak Prescott, makes the loss even harder. Prescott’s was the most impactful injury of the 2020 season.

Another of Dallas’ superstar skill players, Ezekiel Elliott, battled injury and ineffectiveness all season long. Elliott tallied career lows in rushing yards, yards per attempt and touchdowns while setting a career high in lost fumbles.

Cowboys fans likely imagined much more out of McCarthy, who managed to drag Dallas to a 6–10 record despite deploying a JV offense and a non-existent defense. McCarthy will have a full offseason to implement his vision before Dallas kicks off its 2021 campaign, as the former Super Bowl-winning coach will need to prove the Cowboys were simply a victim of circumstance in 2020.

Joe Judge (New York Giants)
Hire grade: C-
2020 grade: D

Did New York improve in any meaningful way during Joe Judge’s first season?

The Giants had a Pythagorean win expectation of 5.5 in 2019 and 5.8 in 2020. Improving from four real-world victories to six can easily be accredited to the dearth of quality competition in the NFC East this season. New York finished tied with the Cowboys, who fielded their B team for three-quarters of the year, and a game and a half ahead of the Eagles, who are suddenly a team in crisis.

Worst of all, the offense regressed. New York was one of only two teams to score fewer than 300 points this season. (There must be something in the water at MetLife Stadium — the other team was the Jets.) Quarterback Daniel Jones was awful, throwing for less than 3,000 yards while tossing just 11 touchdown passes, significantly fewer than his rookie total of 24. Jones’ horrific turnover record slightly improved in 2020, but the former Duke signal-caller still threw 10 interceptions and fumbled 10 times, losing five. That type of performance is unacceptable for a player taken sixth overall in the 2019 draft.

Judge deserves more time to prove me wrong, but through one season, the Giants appear to be stuck in the same rut they were under Pat Shurmur.

Bonus: Bill O’Brien (Houston Texans)
2020 grade: F
Firing grade: A+

First, a little bit of mea culpa: The plumes of smoke billowing from the tire fire in south Texas aren’t solely Bill O’Brien’s fault. As we’ve learned over the last few weeks, the entire Texans organization is a mess.

With that being said, O’Brien was an albatross around the franchise’s proverbial neck. Presented with the opportunity in recent years to pull away from the Titans and Colts, O’Brien’s Texans barely managed to top their division rivals.

O’Brien’s track record as a personnel man in Houston will forever be tied to two historically bad trades: The deal that brought Laremy Tunsil to Houston and the tradethat sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona.

The logic behind acquiring Tunsil was strong — Houston’s offensive line was a mess and the team needed a left tackle to protect Deshaun Watson. The execution of the trade was an outright disaster, however. Houston traded two first-round picks (including the third overall selection in this year’s draft) and a second-round pick to Miami for Tunsil … before agreeing to a contract extension with the player. Tunsil, holding every ounce of leverage in negotiations with the Texans, represented himself in contract talks and became the highest-paid tackle in football by average annual value.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the completely indefensible trade that sent Hopkins to the desert, but the collateral damage may set the franchise back for years. The trade cost Watson, Houston’s franchise quarterback, both his top target on the field and his good friend off it. It may have been the genesis for Watson’s disillusionment with the franchise, one that seems destined to end with Watson in another uniform before the start of the 2021 season.

Despite years of poor decisions on and off the field, the McNair family gave O’Brien a chance to right the ship in 2020. As usual, he failed — the Texans lost all four of the games O’Brien coached this season. After the fourth, a 31–23 defeat against the visiting Minnesota Vikings, O’Brien was finally, mercifully, relieved of his duties.

Footy junkie. Advanced statistics nerd. Kind of a big deal in Canada.