Grading 2018 NFL coaching hires: Lions, Colts get high marks, questions for Titans, Raiders

For the second straight year, the NFL experienced a bizarre cycle of coaching changes. Last season was odd because there were six coaching changes and all of them happened before Black Monday, with teams either firing their coaches before the season ended or swiftly moving after the Week 17 action. The jobs all officially filled after the Super Bowl, when Kyle Shanahan was finally announced as the 49ers coach, but we knew most of the hires well before then. 

How do last year's grades hold up? Give me a big, fat F for dinging the Jaguars on the Doug Marrone hire (D+). The addition of Marrone -- as well as Tom Coughlin in the front office -- brought a discipline to a team lacking in that area over the last few years and it resulted in an AFC South title and an AFC Championship game berth. My bad on that. Marrone wasn't a sexy hire but he's been a good head coach. I whiffed. I did get Shanahan (B+) right based on early results, but I was definitely aided by Jimmy Garoppolo's midseason acquisition. I could've been higher on both Sean Mcvay and Sean McDermott but liked both selections, just didn't expect the quick turnaround. See the full grades here.

This year wasn't entirely different from last, either. Once again, a lot of the firings came early (Ben McAdoo) or were obvious (John Fox, Jim Caldwell) or weren't firings at all (Bruce Arians). Only two situations were a surprise: Jack Del Rio being fired by the Raiders immediately after their Week 17 game and Mike Mularkey being fired by the Titans immediately after their second playoff game, a loss in New England. 

Indianapolis Colts

  • Coach: Josh McDaniels
  • Grade: A

Part of the grade for a coaching hire involves a franchise's ability to go out and get someone you don't they can get. And I didn't think the Colts were capable of getting Josh McDaniels, primarily because I believed McDaniels would end up landing with a former Patriots co-worker like Jon Robinson or Bob Quinn. Credit GM Chris Ballard in that regard, because he was given the reins by Jim Irsay for this coaching search and, assuming nothing falls through between now and after the Super Bowl, did a superb job of landing a guy who many believe has been a top coaching candidate over the last few years. 

McDaniels' resume with the Patriots doesn't need much rehashing. In his nine years as Pats offensive coordinator -- spanning two different tenures -- New England has never ranked lower than eighth in points scored and has never ranked lower than 11th in yards produced. Yes, having Tom Brady is a plus, and the Patriots have always had plenty of toys for McDaniels to use. But he has fashioned multiple offenses around multiple personnel groups. If the Pats beat the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, he will have engineered three Super Bowl victories for New England. 

Critics will point to McDaniels' explosive tenure in Denver, and that's fair. McDaniels left New England after the 2008 season, took over the Broncos, traded Jay Cutler, beat Bill Belichick, had a postgame scuffle with Todd Haley (then Chiefs coach), drafted Tim Tebow, gave away a future first-round pick that would turn out to be Earl Thomas in order to draft Alphonso Smith and summarily got fired in his second year. It was a wild ride and it ended in a horrible (metaphorical) crash. 

It's fine to be concerned about what happened in Denver, but Belichick once got fired from the Browns/Ravens too. People make mistakes in life and generally learn from them. The smart bet is on McDaniels talent and skills combined with Ballard's smart roster construction. The big X-factor here is Andrew Luck's health. If he can play at 100 percent in 2018, McDaniels can help design an offense to mitigate the punishment Luck will take and this becomes a contending team immediately. If not, well, he does have familiarity with Jacoby Brissett. The Colts have already significantly raised their ceiling this offseason.

Detroit Lions

  • Coach: Matt Patricia
  • Grade: A-

Another situation where it's difficult to hate on someone plucking away a coveted Belichick assistant, and it sure does feel like a pretty good fit for Patricia, who can stay away from the limelight of a city like New York, while also walking into a job that features GM Bob Quinn, a former colleague of his in New England, and a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford.

Patricia gets a slightly lower grade than McDaniels primarily because we don't know exactly who he will be as a head coach, although by all accounts he is plenty smart enough to handle the job, if not much more. 

The long-time Pats defensive coordinator, like McDaniels, cannot be made official as Lions coach until after the Super Bowl, but the deal is all but done. In fact, Patricia is reportedly already letting some assistants know they will not be retained, but that doesn't appear to include offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who has been critical to Stafford's development over the last two years. 

Patricia has been running the Patriots defense since 2012, and they have finished in the top 10 in points allowed every single season. This despite three different times finishing 25th or worse in terms of yards allowed on the year. Belichick deservedly gets praise for his work on the defensive side of the ball, but let's not pretend Patricia is just some guy standing there listening to his head coach. Belichick has praised both Patricia and McDaniels for years in terms of their playcalling.

"I think Josh and Matt they do a great job of [following their instincts]," Belichick said back in 2015. "They call the majority of the plays, and they do a great job of anticipating what could happen in certain situations. You have to be ready for two, three, four things, whatever it happens to be. But then, every once in a while, you get that feeling that, 'This is the time. This is when we wanna do it.'

"And they're right. They're right quite a bit."

The Lions defense has some pieces on the roster -- Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay, Jarrad Davis, A'Shawn Robinson, Tahir Whitehead, Teez Tabor, to name a few players -- where you can imagine them putting together a productive season under Patricia. Be consistent on offense, improve on defense, be more ... fundamental overall and the Lions could make a playoff run next year. 

Oakland Raiders

  • Coach: Jon Gruden
  • Grade: B+

This is an extremely difficult hire to grade. Mark Davis the Raiders deserve an A+++ for having the huevos to go out and spend $100 million (over 10 years) on a Super Bowl-winning coach who has been hotly pursued by many franchises over the last decade and one who embodies what it means to be a Raaaaaaaaaaaaidaaaaah. Chucky is back and Raiders nation is fired up; look no further than the absurd list of Hall of Fame alums who showed up to his press conference. Convincing Gruden to leave the "Monday Night Football" booth, clearly, was not easy. Otherwise it would have happened sooner. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't so hard because, well, $100 million. 

This is the type of hire that would make Al Davis smile, grinning down while watching his son introduce Gruden during what can only be described as a hype-inducing spectacle. It might end up being lower, but I can absolutely imagine a high-profile draft and free agency approach that results in the Raiders having a 9.5 or 10-win total in Vegas next year. 

Having said that, I'm not sure Gruden is going to be a "A" of an hire in terms of results, primarily because anything short of winning a Super Bowl over the next five years -- and that might be too many? -- is going to be considered a disappointment. There are questions about Gruden. Can he adapt to the modern NFL after nearly a decade in the booth? Will the lessons he learned from watching every other team result in immediate returns? Should we focus more on his Super Bowl or on the years in Tampa after that? How will he fit with Derek Carr (the two appeared to connect prior to Carr being drafted)? 

Even if Gruden checks all the boxes and aces all the tests -- and there's no way to know -- the Raiders might not be a great team. Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack are a dynamic trio to build around. But there are a ton of guys -- Sean Smith, David Amerson, Bruce Irvin, Donald Penn, Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook, Cordarrelle Patterson and even Michael Crabtree -- who have deals that were structured by the Raiders to let them get out this offseason with no penalty. 

If you think Gruden won't make some changes that will surprise, well, read Steve Corkran of RaidersSnakePit.com and "Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield," breaking down just how Gruden handled the roster last time he was in Oakland

I love the moxie of getting Gruden, but I'm wary of whether or not the hire will live up to the expectations, especially on the financial end. 

Arizona Cardinals

  • Coach: Steve Wilks
  • Grade: B+

Once again, the Cardinals were the last team to land a candidate in a coaching cycle. And once again, they landed a quiet but aggressive candidate who is, by all accounts, a players' coach. Steve Wilks is hardly Bruce Arians, but they actually share some surprising similarities. 

Wilks was HIGHLY aggressive in 2017 with the Panthers offense, blitzing an absurd 44.5 percent of the time (the league average is less than 28 percent per Pro Football Focus). The Cardinals have a fascinating defense for Wilks to work with: Chandler Jones is an elite pass rusher, Patrick Peterson is a lockdown corner and Deone Bucannon, Hasson Reddick, Budda Baker and Tyrann Mathieu are the type of malleable defensive weapons a blitz-happy guy like Wilks can uncork on opposing offenses. 

There are definitely questions about how the offense will work, but I think Wilks did a nice job quickly moving to land Mike McCoy as his offensive coordinator on Thursday. McCoy was a scapegoat for the Broncos last year, but the offense was just fundamentally flawed. Arizona still needs to find a quarterback -- there is literally no one under contract right now. That quarterback issue is going to pervade the Cardinals approach to free agency and the draft. Give Wilks credit for being able to effectively dodge the question with coach speak. 

"I didn't feel like that was a reason not to take the job," Wilks said in a recent interview with PFT's Mike Florio. "Most importantly I believe in relationships and that connection [with GM Steve Keim and president Michael Bidwell] was phenomenal."

Wilks mentioned in the interview his No. 1 skillset is his "leadership skills" -- it is very notable that Wilks would take over as the "head coach" for Ron Rivera when the Panthers head coach would leave for various reasons (he was gone during the season once when his brother died in recent years). Al Holcomb, the former Panthers linebackers coach, is expected to join Wilks in Arizona, which provides some continuity. 

Chicago Bears

  • Coach: Matt Nagy
  • Grade: B+

Let's applaud the Bears for making the very obvious decision to move on from John Fox, and let's also applaud them for taking the "Rams 2.0" approach to their coaching search. I don't always agree with the process used by GM Ryan Pace, and I don't necessarily love how quick he was to jump all over Nagy, if only because it felt a little too trendy to get the young offensive mind who stems from the Andy Reid coaching tree. Plus, it sounds like this was a done deal before the Chiefs debacle in the second half against the Titans, a play-calling issue that Nagy took ownership for.

Back to the Rams thing, though. This is 100 percent about how Mitchell Trubisky looks over the next year or two or three. If he develops into an impressive young passer -- after a *fine* first season -- under Nagy, then this will be an A+ hire. If he flops, it will be an F. There are plenty of areas in between, of course, but turning Trubisky into a top-10 quarterback by 2020 would make this a slam-dunk decision. 

It's interesting how much praise Nagy got from his old boss, too. According to Adam Caplan, Reid described Nagy as the "best head-coaching candidate" he's had. This is a guy who coached Ron Rivera, Sean McDermott and Doug Pederson, to name a few, from the extensive Reid coaching tree. 

"Andy Reid told me that Matt Nagy is the best head-coaching candidate he's ever had," Caplan said. "He told me that at the owner's meetings. I just happened to ask him who some candidates are on his roster of coaches and he loves Matt Nagy, who he had in Philly."

The pieces are in place to recreate what the Rams did with Sean McVay, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley. They have Trubisky, Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen and an offensive line with talent. I sort of love Adam Shaheen. They need to get some receiver help, and that could be a focus in the draft or even free agency. Defensively, it wouldn't be a surprise to see this unit improve/maintain its level of play with Vic Fangio returning. 

So this basically comes down to two questions. One, do you believe in Trubisky as a prospect who will grow into a franchise passer? I do, personally. He's shown enough and has the physical skills to take a leap forward in 2018. And two, do you think Nagy is the guy Reid handed the playcalling to midseason, the guy who helped the Chiefs pull out of a nosedive and salvage the 2017 season with some great playcalling, or is he the guy who sort of messed himself in the second half of a playoff game by getting too cute? Give me the sample size over the bad half of playcalling. 

Nagy was a hot name and the Bears pounced on him and if they replicate the Rams season from last year, this grade will look too low in 265 days.

New York Giants

  • Coach: Pat Shurmur
  • Grade: B

This is the polar opposite of the Gruden hire. And that's probably just how the Giants want it. New York chased off Tom Coughlin two years ago in order to replace him with his offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. The result was a good 2016 season culminating in an embarrassing playoff loss highlighted by a public nightmare in Odell Beckham Jr. and a group of receivers taking a trip to Miami. That was followed up by a disastrous 2017 season, highlighted by three wins, the No. 2 overall pick and Eli Manning being publicly humiliated by the McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese in a benching that ended his ironman streak of starts. 

What the Giants did NOT want to do this offseason was win the press conference, draw a bunch of attention to themselves and get everyone riled up for 2018. So they hired Dave Gettleman (as no-nonsense a football guy as they come) and Shurmur, who just quietly crafted one of the more underrated offensive seasons in recent NFL history. The Vikings defense gets most of the credit because it's so good and deep and talented, but the offense was outstanding this year. Minnesota ranked fifth in Football Outsiders DVOA despite losing its starting quarterback (who was acquired in a trade last year because the original starting quarterback got injured) and its starting running back. Sam Bradford suffered a Week 1 injury that kept him on the sidelines all season long, while Dalvin Cook went down with an ACL early in the year. Shurmur engineered an offense that finished 10th in points scored this season (23.9 points/game) with Case Keenum under center and Latavius Murray in the backfield. Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph all posted career highs in either receiving yards or touchdown receptions. 

Shurmur's history as a head coach is not impressive. He is just 10-23, including one win as interim coach for the Eagles after Chip Kelly was fired. The 9-23 record came with the Browns, though, and nine wins in Cleveland over two years would feel like a Super Bowl after Hue Jackson just went 1-31 in the same timespan. The Browns have won 15 games total since Shurmur was fired. In his time in Cleveland, he got starts from Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace and Brandon Weeden. He will immediately upgrade from those guys with Eli Manning, who appears to be sticking in New York, and presumably will help Gettleman pick a quarterback of the future at No. 2 overall. 

The biggest plus to me is how Shurmur was able to take mild upgrades on the Vikings offensive line and, in his first full season as offensive coordinator, make them a capable unit. The Giants need to improve the running back position, but Paul Perkins could be a poor man's Jerick McKinnon (or they could sign McKinnon), but if he can get good play out of the line in New York, we could see an explosive offense again. 

Tennessee Titans

  • Coach: Mike Vrabel
  • Grade: B-

To be clear: I really like Vrabel as a head coach. He's got the Belichick stamp too. But there are some concerns here with the process for me. Most notably was the way the Titans handled things with Mike Mularkey. They were planning to fire him if he missed the playoffs and then he made the postseason. They were planning to fire him if he lost to the Chiefs, then he beat Kansas City. He was miffed about his job being involved in rumors leading up to the wild-card round, so Tennessee gave him a public vote of confidence, only to fire him a week later. 

The presumption was GM Jon Robinson -- who has done a nice job in player evaluation and acquisition thus far -- convinced owner Amy Adams Strunk to can Mularkey in order to get McDaniels. They clearly got involved too late and reacted by going to get Vrabel, who played in New England while Robinson was there. Now, that's not a bad thing. Vrabel was a hot coaching candidate in this cycle. Look at what Belichick said about him when he was traded out of New England in 2009.

"When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker," Belichick said at the time. "But where Mike took it from there exceeded our highest hopes. Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level. ... The toughest aspect of my job is the day I stop coaching people like Mike, who did everything in his power to contribute to team success. Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike."

Vrabel definitely has a little bit of Belichick in him too. From last year:

That sounds familiar

The concern with Vrabel is a lack of experience at the coordinator level (although Wilks had just one year as a DC as well) and the Texans taking a step back last year with him running the defense (although J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus both got hurt). 

Additionally, the Titans new coach immediately lost out on his top choice for both offensive coordinator (Ryan Day chose to stay at Ohio State) and defensive coordinator (James Bettcher chose the Giants instead). Coordinators are going to be key in this job.

Ultimately I think the Titans did the right thing, especially for Marcus Mariota, in firing Mularkey and moving on to a new coach. But they have to get the offensive coordinator selection right or else this could look like a questionable move. Developing Mariota is priority No. 1 and there is a danger in bringing in a green, defensive coach if there is not a quarterback-grooming coordinator coming along with him. 


CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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