Barnwell: Ranking the NFL’s best recent head-coaching hires, and why several have a case for No. 1

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Sometimes, you guys make it easy for me. Wasting time on Twitter the other day, I put up a poll asking voters to pick the best coaching hire of the past five years. I listed four options and could have easily put a couple more into the conversation. The results were the internet equivalent of a four-way tie, with each option receiving between 22% and 27% of the vote.

With the league about to employ a handful of new coaches and many of the league’s best hires from the past few years competing for a Super Bowl, I thought now would be a good time to weigh in with my own thoughts on the matter. There are potentially six coaches who would be plausible picks at No. 1, and that could change if one of them wins Super Bowl LVI next month.

To narrow down the list, I went with two rules, which conveniently left us with 10 coaches. One was that we’re exclusively looking at coaches who were hired over the past five years, so coaches who got their jobs heading into the 2017 season. That distinction causes Doug Pederson to miss out, because the Eagles hired him before the 2016 campaign. His tenure in Philadelphia didn’t end well, but it’s tough to argue with a coach who took over a 7-9 team and won a Super Bowl two years later.

The other rule is that the coaches needed to have won at least one playoff game with their new teams to make it into the rankings, which leaves out a bunch of possible candidates. Kliff Kingsbury lost his chance when his Cardinals were blown out by the Rams. Mike McCarthy (Cowboys) isn’t in the mix, and neither are Brandon Staley (Chargers), Nick Sirianni (Eagles) or Ron Rivera (Washington), each of whom have done solid work early in their tenures. I might put some of those guys ahead of some of the options at the bottom of our top 10 in a vacuum, but I think it’s fair to set that distinction. Frankly, there’s a pretty large gap between the top six candidates and everyone else.

I’ll start with the 10th-ranked coach and work my way up to my pick as the best hire of the past five seasons:

10. Zac Taylor, Bengals

Previous job: Quarterbacks coach, Rams
Record as coach: 16-32-1 (.337)
Playoffs: 1-0, advanced as far as the divisional round
Team record, prior three seasons: 19-28-1 (.406)
QB inherited: Andy Dalton

After getting off to a 6-25-1 start in two unremarkable seasons to start his career, Taylor and his staff have turned things around in Year 3. The LSU combination of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase has rekindled its former connection for the Bengals, who were the last team standing in the slugfest that was the AFC North this season. Burrow solidified Cincinnati’s playoff credentials by throwing nine touchdown passes and more than 900 yards over a two-game stretch against the Ravens and Chiefs, with the latter victory knocking Kansas City out of the top seed in the AFC.

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0:43

Zac Taylor hypes up Bengals fans at a bar after the team’s playoff win over the Raiders.

Every Bengals fan would have happily signed up for a division title and a playoff win before the 2021 season began, so Taylor is playing with house money over the rest of the season. Naturally, if he can make a deeper playoff run, it should secure an even longer runway for him. Given the long tenure of predecessor Marvin Lewis, the team’s newfound success and the presence of young difference-makers at all levels on offense, I don’t think Taylor is going anywhere for awhile.

With that being said, he’s pretty clearly the bottom choice on this list. Nobody would have batted an eye if the Bengals had fired the 38-year-old after his first two seasons in Cincinnati. Unlike the higher-profile coaches I mentioned in the introduction, though, Taylor has a playoff win, so he’s on the list.


9. Anthony Lynn, Chargers

Previous job: Interim coach, Bills
Record as coach: 33-32 (.508)
Playoffs: 1-1, advanced as far as the divisional round
Team record, prior three seasons: 18-30 (.375)
QB inherited: Philip Rivers

Lynn is unique on this list for a few reasons. He’s the only coach here to be fired, having made it to the postseason with a 12-4 mark in 2018 before being let go after a 7-9 season in 2020. Lynn has also been let go from another job since then, having gone one-and-done as the offensive coordinator with the Lions this past season. Only 12 months or so removed from being an NFL head coach, he will likely be looking at a positional-coaching role in 2022 if he wants to stay at the professional level.

Lynn is also the only Black coach on this list, which is a reminder of how few minority coaches have been hired over the past five years. Just seven of the league’s jobs have gone to minority coaches over that time frame. Lynn and Vance Joseph (Broncos) were hired in 2017, and they were eventually followed by Steve Wilks (Cardinals, 2018), Brian Flores (Dolphins, 2019), Ron Rivera (Washington, 2020) and most recently Robert Saleh (Jets, 2021) and David Culley (Texans, 2021).

Many of those coaches dealt with remarkably quick hooks. Wilks and Culley went one-and-done. Joseph lasted two years in Denver. Lynn went 12-4 and was out of a job two years later. Flores took over a tanking Dolphins team, started 0-7, went 24-18 over the ensuing two-and-a-half years and was let go anyway. Many of these coaches had better records and performances than white coaches who enjoyed longer runways, including Taylor, who presided over a hapless Bengals team for two seasons without being fired.

There’s a bigger-picture conversation to be had about the NFL’s hiring practices when it comes to minority coaches, and it deserves its own article. While the league has focused on guaranteeing minority coaches interviews for jobs, research from 2019 suggested that minority coaches needed to have stronger résumés, were less likely to get second chances and got less time to prove themselves in their new jobs than white coaches. Given the situations Flores and Culley inherited, there are fair questions to be raised about whether coaches of color are getting opportunities in jobs where they’re likely to succeed.


8. Kevin Stefanski, Browns

Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Vikings
Record as coach: 19-14 (.576)
Playoffs: 1-1, advanced as far as the divisional round
Team record, prior three seasons: 13-34-1 (.281)
QB inherited: Baker Mayfield

While the Browns are coming off a disappointing season, consider that the .470 winning percentage they posted in 2021 would have been their best mark since 2007 if it weren’t for the playoff season of 2020. That Browns team wasn’t quite as good as its record, owing to some generous luck in one-score games, but Cleveland has looked like a consistently competent football team for much of the past two seasons, just two years after going 0-16 under Hue Jackson. Its playoff win over the Steelers — which came while Stefanski was isolating in his basement as a result of testing positive for COVID-19 — was the organization’s first playoff win since 1994, when its coach was Bill Belichick.

Stefanski rightfully received credit for steadying the ship and building a logical offense around his players’ strengths in 2020. Many of the decisions the Browns made in free agency paid off that season, a credit to both Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry. I’m not sure it should factor in to his work with the Browns, but it also seems worth noting that Stefanski is really the only offensive coordinator over the past four years to leave the Vikings without having violently angered Mike Zimmer, a small victory in its own right.

Mayfield’s relationship with and development under Stefanski seemed to stall this season, in part because the mercurial quarterback was playing through a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. With the 2018 No. 1 overall pick pick a free agent after 2022, the organization is about to hit a crossroads. Browns fans were understandably thrilled with the 2020 Coach of the Year after Stefanski led them back to the postseason, but what happens next will determine whether he goes down the same path as 2017 winner Sean McVay or follows in the footsteps of the guy who won that award the following year, Matt Nagy.


7. Frank Reich, Colts

Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Eagles
Record as coach: 37-28 (.569)
Playoffs: 1-2, advanced as far as the divisional round
Team record, prior three seasons: 20-28 (.417)
QB inherited: Andrew Luck

There’s a sour taste in everyone’s mouth about the Colts given how their season ended, but we have to take a longer view of things with how Reich has performed in Indianapolis. It would have been easy for him to lack credibility, given that he was hired only after Josh McDaniels left Indianapolis at the altar. Reich had to inherit members of a coaching staff McDaniels hired and was taking over a team that had just spent the season without Luck.

After one year of getting to work with Luck, the quarterback retired, leaving Reich and the Colts to pick up the pieces and sort through alternatives such as Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz. They have been consistently competitive, reliably beating at least one or two of the league’s best teams each season. They’ve also lost to the Jaguars at least once in each of Reich’s four years in charge; Jacksonville is 4-4 against Indianapolis and 11-46 against every other team over that time frame.

It certainly seems like there are more questions about Reich and the Colts’ ultimate upside after their collapse at the end of the season. I think everyone acknowledges that Reich stepped into a tough situation that only got tougher after Luck’s retirement, but the Colts have won one playoff game in four seasons, and it came against the Texans. Reich has been a rock of stability for the Colts as they’ve gone through transition after transition, but after their disastrous end to 2021, it’s fair to want more.


6. Mike Vrabel, Titans

Previous job: Defensive coordinator, Texans
Record as coach: 41-24 (.631)
Playoffs: 2-2, advanced as far as the AFC Championship Game
Team record, prior three seasons: 21-27 (.438)
QB inherited: Marcus Mariota

Talk to current and ex-players around the NFL about Vrabel and you almost invariably hear the same thing: “I’d love to play for that guy.” Whether it’s his performance, his demeanor or the culture that has sprouted up in Nashville after his arrival, the Titans have emerged from years of frustration to become a team just about everybody in the NFL is afraid to play. Now, as the 1-seed in the AFC, they have a clear path to the Super Bowl.

It’s worth noting that Vrabel was sort of a questionable hire when the Titans chose him four years ago. Mike Mularkey was coming off consecutive 9-7 seasons, and his team had just upset the Chiefs in the wild-card round before getting blown out by the Patriots in the 2017 playoffs. Vrabel had been an NFL coach for only four seasons and a coordinator for one, during which his Texans defense had dropped from eighth to 19th in defensive DVOA. The former Patriots standout had enjoyed a reputation as a player who would eventually make a great coach during his time in the league, but that had also been true of Mike Singletary, who was overmatched during his time with the 49ers.

Vrabel was only able to match Mularkey’s 9-7 regular-season record during his first two seasons at the helm, but the Titans broke through in the playoffs in Year 2, beating the Patriots and Ravens and advancing to the AFC Championship Game. The Titans have gone 23-10 over the ensuing two seasons, and while their underlying performance hasn’t been as impressive as their record, Vrabel’s game management has generally been a plus. I don’t think I’ll ever forget him exploiting the league’s delay of game rules in the fourth quarter against the Patriots while his former coach, Bill Belichick, fumed on the opposite sideline.

On the other hand, Vrabel made major misstep in punting late during last season’s playoff loss to the Ravens, and the Titans were mostly able to avoid tough competition while they were without Derrick Henry during the second half of this season. The star back is expected to return from his foot injury this weekend, which would leave the Titans without excuses as they get to play through the AFC bracket at home. This looms as a key postseason for Vrabel. Advance to the Super Bowl, and he will rightfully be regarded as one of the league’s top coaches. Come up short, and there will be questions about whether the Titans just whiffed on the best chance they’ll have to win silverware.


5. Kyle Shanahan, 49ers

Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Falcons
Record as coach: 39-42 (.481)
Playoffs: 3-1, advanced as far as the Super Bowl
Team record, prior three seasons: 15-33 (.312)
QB inherited: Colin Kaepernick

Shanahan is the most difficult coach to judge on this list. The positives seem obvious. At its best, his offense can be irresistible, as we saw in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. When he has had chosen starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the field, the 49ers have gone 31-14. Shanahan’s first playoff run saw the them make it to the Super Bowl, and they just started their second playoff run of the Shanahan era by outplaying and upsetting the Cowboys in Dallas. For an organization that had gone through three coaches in three seasons before hiring Shanahan, the 49ers would happily make this hire again.

At the same time, it’s pretty easy to poke holes in his work. The organization’s commitment to injury-prone Garoppolo has often yielded a low ceiling and a low floor, with Shanahan’s record still under .500 after five years in charge. With Shanahan holding final say on personnel decisions, the Niners have made move after move to try to add offensive talent, sacrificing their secondary in the process. In both 2019 and 2021, you could argue that their success had as much or more to do with their defense than it did their offense, a credit to coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans.

Things are about to get more interesting. The 49ers were nearly out of the postseason before a late Garoppolo drive in Week 18 pushed them back in at the expense of the Saints. If they can beat the Packers and make another trip to the NFC Championship Game, Shanahan will have made two deep playoff runs in three years. If they lose, the Trey Lance era at quarterback will begin in earnest and Shanahan’s most expensive bet will be on the line. Lance’s future in San Francisco might determine that of the guy who traded three first-round picks to get him.


Previous job: Head coach, Cardinals
Record as coach: 31-18 (.633)
Playoffs: 5-0, won the Super Bowl
Team record, prior three seasons: 19-29 (.396)
QB inherited: Jameis Winston

There’s an easy case for naming Arians as the No. 1 coach on this list: He’s the only one hired over the past five years to win a Super Bowl. The Buccaneers hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007 or won a playoff game since their last championship run in 2002 before Arians arrived, so it’s hardly like he inherited a winning hand from Dirk Koetter & Co. The Bucs have gone from being an afterthought to taking over as Super Bowl champs, and it would hardly be shocking if they repeated the feat again in 2021.

We also have to be realistic. Arians inherited Winston as his starting quarterback and went 7-9 with the inconsistent 2016 No. 1 overall pick. When the Bucs signed Tom Brady in free agency in 2020, everything changed. Brady has thrived with Tampa’s skill players in Arians’ offense, and the coach certainly deserves credit for that work, but it’s not as if he turned things around with a rookie quarterback or a guy who didn’t have 20 years of experience playing at a similarly high level elsewhere.

Arians is a different sort of coach from the other guys on this list, many of whom are younger and were brought in to rebuild franchises. I’m not sure he knew he was going to get Brady in the second year of his time with the Buccaneers, but in his late 60s and having already retired from coaching twice, he wasn’t coming in on a five-year plan. The Bucs’ goal in hiring Arians was to turn things around quickly, and while it took landing the greatest player in NFL history, you can’t argue with the results. Other coaches have needed to do heavier lifting, which is why I have Arians at No. 4, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for putting the Kangol enthusiast at No. 1.


3. Sean McDermott, Bills

Previous job: Defensive coordinator, Panthers
Record as coach: 49-32 (.605)
Playoffs: 3-3, advanced as far as the AFC Championship Game
Team record, prior three seasons: 24-24 (.500)
QB inherited: Tyrod Taylor

I’m including winning percentage before and after each of the coaches were hired as a quick measure of the change they’ve been able to enact within their organizations, but it undersells McDermott’s impact. The Bills were enduring a streak of 17 seasons without playoff football before he arrived, and since then they’ve made the postseason four times in five years.

I genuinely think the first of those appearances was essentially by accident, as a rebuilding Bills team benched Taylor for Nathan Peterman late in the season, only for Peterman to immediately cede the job back to the incumbent. Taylor led a win over the Chiefs, and the Bills got help from the Bengals to make an unlikely trip into the postseason, where they lost to the Jaguars.

That team McDermott inherited was basically vaporized; the Bills have been rebuilt in the image of McDermott and fellow Panthers product Brandon Beane, who was hired as the team’s general manager in 2017. Virtually everybody from the Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley regime was excised in a matter of two years, with the Bills finding ways to add talent through any and all avenues. Obviously, selecting Josh Allen was much maligned by many at the time (including me), but that has turned out to be an absolute masterstroke. Allen is quite clearly the team’s successor to Jim Kelly, a player the franchise had been looking to find for more than two decades.

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Rex Ryan, Matt Hasselbeck and Randy Moss identify the most impressive aspects of the Bills’ playoff win over the Patriots.

More than Allen, though, it’s striking to see how many players leave their old teams and get better after joining the Bills. The heartbeat of their roster is the safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, mid-tier free agents who have turned into the league’s best pairing over the past five seasons. Jon Feliciano, Jordan Phillips and John Brown have come over and noticeably elevated their game under McDermott and coordinators Leslie Frazier and Brian Daboll. Even Stefon Diggs and Mitch Morse, who were stars before moving to Western New York, can say that they’ve improved after joining the Bills.

The next step for Buffalo and the thing that might push McDermott up the ranks to No. 1 would be a Super Bowl appearance. No team has a higher ceiling on both offense and defense than the Bills, who showed that off in their blowout victory over the Patriots last week. Regardless what happens this weekend, McDermott’s transformed Bills are pretty clearly here to stay.


2. Matt LaFleur, Packers

Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Titans
Record as coach: 39-10 (.796)
Playoffs: 2-2, advanced as far as the NFC Championship Game
Team record, prior three seasons: 23-24-1 (.490)
QB inherited: Aaron Rodgers

Outside of winning a Super Bowl, I’m not sure any coach has gotten off to a better start across his first three seasons than LaFleur. The Packers had fallen off and grown stale in the dying days of the Mike McCarthy era, and while they could blame their 7-9 record in 2017 on an injury to Rodgers, they went 6-9-1 with a full season from their legendary quarterback the following year.

From the moment LaFleur arrived, Green Bay has been unimpeachable. It went 13-3 in 2019, 13-3 in 2020 and started 13-3 in 2021 before resting its players for most of a meaningless Week 18 game. The playoffs haven’t been quite as fruitful, as the Packers were blown out by the 49ers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game and lost controversially at home to the Bucs in the same game the following season, with LaFleur taking some of the blame for a now-infamous decision to kick a field goal down 8 points with 2:09 to go. Generally, though, he has been one of the best coaches in the league when it comes to handling fourth-down decisions and game management, which is one of the reasons the Packers have been so great in close games.

How can I rank LaFleur ahead of Arians when they both have Hall of Fame quarterbacks and Arians has won a Super Bowl? Consider how those quarterbacks have grown under their new coaches. Brady’s numbers fell off with little offensive help in 2019, but after posting a 119 and 115 ANY/A+ (adjusted net yards per attempt, accounting for era) in 2017 and 2018, he has been back at 116 in 2020 and 115 in 2021.

Rodgers, meanwhile, had been in the middle of an extended decline before LaFleur arrived, with the future Hall of Famer following his MVP season in 2014 by producing an average ANY/A+ of 106 between 2015 and 2018. He was right in line with that mark at 105 in 2019, but he has led the league with a 134 ANY/A+ in 2020 and a 123 mark in 2021. Rodgers is going to go from being seemingly on his way out to winning consecutive MVP awards in his late 30s. His coach deserves some of the credit for that improvement. LaFleur is firmly entrenched here and would probably go to the top with a Super Bowl win.


1. Sean McVay, Rams

Previous job: Offensive coordinator, Washington
Record as coach: 55-26 (.679)
Playoffs: 4-3, advanced as far as the Super Bowl
Team record, prior three seasons: 17-31 (.354)
QB inherited: Jared Goff

The steady success the Rams have enjoyed since McVay arrived in town has made it easy to forget about how forlorn this franchise was before he arrived. The last winning season it had posted before McVay arrived was in 2003, when McVay was a 17-year-old junior quarterback in Georgia. Running back Steven Jackson’s entire career came and went without the Rams posting a single nine-win season.

Since then, they have posted a winning season in each of McVay’s first five years. McVay turned around the franchise as immediately as any new coach in recent memory without needing to change the quarterback. In his first offseason with the team, he and general manager Les Snead signed Robert Woods and Andrew Whitworth in free agency, drafted Cooper Kupp, Gerald Everett and John Johnson and traded for Sammy Watkins. Watkins aside, that core helped transform the Rams on offense and morphed Goff overnight from a hopeless rookie into one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks.

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1:06

The Get Up crew discusses whether the Rams can take advantage of the injuries mounting for the Buccaneers.

McVay’s relationship with Goff faded and ended in ugly fashion, leading to the Matthew Stafford trade last offseason. If you want to criticize his work, you probably have to lean on some of the contract extensions the Rams have made. New deals for Goff, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks were major disappointments. For all of his offensive genius, McVay was also flummoxed on his only trip to the league’s biggest stage, with Bill Belichick and the Patriots holding the Rams to a field goal in a 13-3 loss in Super Bowl LIII.

With that said, McVay’s impact on this franchise just after it moved to L.A. and before it built a new stadium probably amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. The Rams had the fifth-worst record in football in the five years before McVay arrived and have the third-best record since. Imagine if somebody took over the Jaguars this offseason and turned them into a perennial Super Bowl contender overnight. That’s what McVay has done in Los Angeles. The only thing he hasn’t done is win a championship.



Source: ESPN


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