Sean Pendergast

NFL Head Coaching Hiring (and Retaining) Report Card

Jon Gruden's hire got the most buzz, but was it the best head coaching hire this offseason?
Jon Gruden's hire got the most buzz, but was it the best head coaching hire this offseason? Screen grab from YouTube
The NFL, like all sports, has its own set of sub-seasons within its own year. There are the prominent sub-seasons like the draft, training camp, the regular season, and the postseason. Beyond that, there are the smaller events or calendar windows, such as the NFL combine, free agency, and my personal favorite, the head coach hiring and firing season. (Also, let's not forget the five month Fantasy Crime League, which gets underway in a couple weeks — offseason NFL player crime could carry its own blog!)

Of all of those, I'm partial to the head coach hiring and firing season, as my business background before radio has made me an "employment status enthusiast." With that said, this year's hiring and firing season was a bit of a dud, in large part because only seven NFL head coaching jobs opened up, when speculation had been there would be nearly twice as many openings.

The reasons for the reduction in firings range from more patient owners to a perceived thin candidate pool, but the fact of the matter is that this year we may as well call it "hiring, firing, and RETAINING season," because several teams chose to continue to roll with head coaches who had mediocre to awful seasons.

Let's look at the new hires and then the retentions, and give a grade to each one, shall we?

 Chuck Pagano
Hired: Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator (not yet official)
Comment: McDaniels is on his second act as a head coach, after bombing miserably as Denver's head coach for two years in 2010 and 2011. Assuming that the Colts can keep him away from signing Tim Tebow and from pissing off everyone in the building (both were, um, issues for him in Denver), it should go better for McDaniels this time around. Andrew Luck's shoulder is a mitigating factor in any discussion about the Colts.

TENNESSEE (9-7, lost in divisional round)
Fired: Mike Mularkey
Hired: Mike Vrabel, Texans defensive coordinator
Comment: We did a full post on this hire over the weekend, so our detailed thoughts are a click away. Just know that if the equivalent of Vrabel's resume showed up on the desk of a decision maker where you don't already know the candidate through television and reputation, it would have been thrown in the garbage. He coordinated THE WORST defense in football last season. Vrabel has also never put together a staff, and his first choice as offensive coordinator, Ohio State's Ryan Day, has already said "No thanks."

OAKLAND (6-10)
Fired: Jack Del Rio
Hired: Jon Gruden, MNF color guy, former Super Bowl winning coach
Comment: This hire is part-football, part-we-need-to-sell-PSA's-STAT. The first half, the football part, this hire is probably a B or B+. Gruden's resume as a head coach is a little overblown. After he won a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's team, it was pretty shaky in Tampa. On the second part, the P.R. part, this is an absolute home run.

Fired: Ben McAdoo
Hired: Pat Shurmer, Vikings offensive coordinator
Comment: Like McDaniels, Shurmur is on his second head coaching stint, having gone 9-23 in Cleveland during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Can you really hold a stint as Browns head coach against a guy? Giant fans are probably more enthused about what the guy did with Case Keenum in 2017. A young quarterback would seem to be a strong likelihood here.

Fired: Jim Caldwell
Hired: Matt Patricia, Patriots defensive coordinator
Comment: Jim Caldwell wasn't abjectly terrible as Lions head coach, as some seem to think, but he never won a playoff game, and he was never going to take them to a Super Bowl. Patricia, who is an actual rocket scientist by education, finally gets a shot to lead an organization, and he should have that all-important ALIGNMENT going with his general manager, Bob Quinn, who was a longtime New England employee while Patricia was there.

CHICAGO (5-11)
Fired: John Fox
Hired: Matt Nagy, Chiefs offensive coordinator
Comment: This will be interesting on a few fronts — (a) Nagy, to my knowledge, wasn't the play caller in Kansas City, Andy Reid was, (b) the only person Nagy has hired for his staff with any head coaching experience is Mark Helfrich, who was fired after four seasons at Oregon, and (c) it will be weird not seeing John Fox's blank stare on an NFL sideline next season.

Retired: Bruce Arians
Hired: Steve Wilks, Panthers defensive coordinator
Comment: Wilks has been a defensive side of the ball lifer at numerous stops on the assistant coaching trail, and his work with the Panther defensive backs for a few seasons, as well as coordinating it this past season, as well as a somewhat weak field of head coaching prospects, was enough to make him a hot candidate and nab the last open job.

And now the head coaches who managed to keep their jobs.....

Retained: Todd Bowles
Comment: I was happy for Bowles that the team chose to keep him around for at least another season. The Jets only went 5-11, but it was a competitive 5-11 (hey, sounds trite, but go look — they were IN most of their games). That was a team everyone assumed was tanking, and they played hard for their head coach.

Retained: Marvin Lewis, extended through 2019 season
Comment: At this point, I just assume that the Bengals see Lewis like a normal office employee with a cubicle who gets graded on attendance and love for the organization, not actual results.

CLEVELAND (0-16, yeah you heard me.... 0-16!)
Retained: Hue Jackson
Comment: I think that society should have a rule whereby going 0-16 should automatically get a head coach fired, like a guaranteed bid to the NCAA tournament.

HOUSTON (4-12)
Retained: Bill O'Brien, extended through 2022 season
Comment: I think firing O'Brien was justifiable, so long as it was part of a complete organizational purge which included general manager Rick Smith. Instead, Smith was shown the door, O'Brien is here, AND he got an extension all the way through 2022.

DENVER (5-11)
Retained: Vance Joseph
Comment: Joseph appeared on the verge of getting fired after one season. Instead, Joseph was retained, but Gary Kubiak was brought in as a quasi-consultant and John Elway basically fired six of Joseph's assistants. From an optics standpoint, it might have been a better look for Joseph to just get fired than to have his power completely usurped.

TAMPA BAY (5-11)
Retained: Dirk Koetter
Comment: Dirk Koetter kept his job, I'm guessing because they don't want to disrupt the tutelage of Jameis Winston. I'm not sure. Honestly, I'm having a really hard time caring about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast