The 2018-19 NFL season has officially ended, and in the words of six-time Super Bowl winning head coach Bill Belichick, we're onto the 2019-20 season. One day after the Patriots defeated the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, the Bengals and Dolphins officially hired Zac Taylor and Brian Flores, respectively, as their new coaches after waiting nearly a month for the Rams and Patriots' seasons to end, which means hiring season is over and grading season is here.
Now that the eight coaching opening have all been filled, we decided now would be a good time to grade the eight hirings. It's a dangerous game to play in large part because so many of these coaches are first-timers, which makes it extremely difficult to predict how they'll fare in their first head coaching ventures. For instance, a year ago, we gave the Cardinals a B+ for their hiring of Steve Wilks and we all know how that turned out. And if you don't how it turned out, well, just know the Cardinals will make an appearance on this list once again.
Before we get to the grades, it's worth noting that just because a team received a high grade doesn't mean we're predicting that team will go on to win a ton of games in 2019. There's more to winning than just coaching. It also comes down to personnel. For instance, we gave the Broncos a very high grade for their decision to hire Vic Fangio, but unless the Broncos find a better quarterback than Case Keenum for the upcoming season (unlikely) or get themselves out of the AFC West (extremely unlikely), they're probably not going to make the playoffs. And if that happens, it doesn't mean the Broncos erred in hiring Fangio. It means they've got a bigger problem than their coach, who can't fix everything on his own.
Below, you'll find a grade for all eight head coach hirings made over the past month or so. It's a dangerous game to play, but we're going to do it anyway.
Zac Taylor to the Bengals: B-
It's easy to understand what the Bengals were going for when they zeroed in on Taylor as their preferred candidate before the Rams' postseason run even began and hired him the day after the Super Bowl. Sean McVay ended up being one of the best hirings ever, but at the time, it seemed like a reach to be hiring the youngest coach in NFL history. Maybe Taylor, 35, follows in McVay's footsteps and leads the Bengals to glory, but it's more likely that Taylor ends up being a reach and that McVay ends up being a one-of-a-kind hiring.
Taylor isn't just young. He's also incredibly inexperienced. He served as the Rams' quarterbacks coach this past season and the assistant wide receivers coach the season prior. He's only been an NFL offensive coordinator once, and that came back in 2015 when he took over for the fired Bill Lazor in Miami on an interim basis. In fairness to Taylor, he did spend a full season as the offensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati, but he did not fare well in that endeavor. The Bearcats averaged 19.3 points per game under Taylor's command. As the Dolphins' quarterbacks coach, Taylor also helped develop Ryan Tannehill, but given the trajectory of Tannehill's career (he's expected to be released this offseason), that's probably not something to tout.
The Bengals' job won't be an easy one. He's inheriting an average 31-year-old quarterback in Andy Dalton and a defense coming off a horrific season. Even if the Bengals are bad in 2019, that won't mean Taylor is a failure. There's plenty of problems that need fixing in Cincinnati. He deserves time to fix them. But it's impossible to give the Taylor hiring a top grade given his limited experience and success. To be frank, he only got hired because he worked under McVay. The Bengals are hoping he's a McVay clone.
For what it's worth, don't knock the hiring just because Jared Goff struggled in the Super Bowl. A year ago, the Chiefs collapsed in a playoff game, but the Bears hired Matt Nagy anyway. He just won Coach of the Year. One game shouldn't be the reason why the Taylor hiring is met with skepticism. His entire resume should be the reason.
That said, give the Bengals credit for getting one thing 100 percent right: They didn't hire Hue Jackson, a decision that elevates their grade from a C to a B-.
Brian Flores to the Dolphins: B
Similarly, we shouldn't crown the Dolphins for hiring Brian Flores just because the Patriots' defense is coming off an absolute masterpiece against the Rams in the Super Bowl. As the defensive play-caller, Flores deserves loads of credit for the Patriots' defensive effort against the Rams, but one game alone shouldn't be the reason why we praise or criticize a hiring.
There's plenty to like and dislike about the hiring, which is why the Dolphins get a B.
Let's start with the positives. Flores has been with the Patriots as an assistant coach for the past 11 seasons, which means he's worked closely with Belichick for a while now. He's won three Super Bowls as an assistant coach. In his first season as the Patriots' defensive play-caller, he coached a group that allowed the seventh-fewest points in the regular season before embarking upon an impressive playoff run against a gauntlet of devastating offenses: the Chargers, Chiefs, and Rams.
The only problem is, it's difficult to know how much credit Flores deserves when he's coaching a Belichick defense. The Belichick coaching tree hasn't really led to successful head coaches.
Always smart to pick the fruit of the Belichick coaching tree. By my count 8 former Belichick assistants have become head coaches. Their records:— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 11, 2019
The Dolphins get a slightly higher grade than the Bengals because their coach has had more success calling plays, but that doesn't make the hiring a home run. It's OK to be skeptical of Flores' future without Belichick. Most of Belichick's disciples haven't done well, with posture stickler Matt Patricia serving as the most-recent example.
One thing is clear: Flores deserves time until we judge him as a coach. The Dolphins are not ready to win in 2019. Flores is going to be overseeing what should be a complete and total rebuild. Don't call him a bad coach if the Dolphins stink in 2019. It's a process.
Kliff Kingsbury to the Cardinals: B
Similar to the Taylor hiring, the Cardinals hiring Kliff Kingsbury, 39, reeks of desperation -- desperation to find the next Sean McVay when odds are, there's only one Sean McVay.
i legit loled when i read this in the Cardinals’ announcement pic.twitter.com/P4E6ITDpn3— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 8, 2019
I'll say this, though: I completely understand why the Cardinals hired Kingsbury. Their thinking makes sense.
They just traded up to draft Josh Rosen and then watched Rosen fail to overcome a bad offense in his rookie season, during which he completed 55.2 percent of his passes, averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, threw 11 touchdowns and 14 picks, and posted a 66.7 passer rating. Kingsbury has his shortcomings, which we'll get to in a moment, but he has had success coaching quarterbacks at the college level, most notably with Patrick Mahomes. And his offenses at Texas Tech scored at least 35 points per game in four of his six seasons in charge. Getting Rosen an offensive-minded coach was a no-brainer.
But Kingsbury's background isn't all good. He went 35-40 at Texas Tech. Put another way, he couldn't win consistently with Patrick freakin' Mahomes. He's never coached in the NFL. There's more to being an NFL coach than developing a highly drafted quarterback. Hiring Kingsbury is a better move than hiring some retread who has been around forever and won't adapt in an evolving sport, but it's also risky.
The Cardinals get a B because they had the right idea in hiring an offensive-minded coach who might be able to get the most out of Rosen, but they're also getting a B because Kingsbury is a huge unknown and a bit of a reach.
Adam Gase to the Jets: B
Like Kingsbury, Adam Gase's primary job is to develop a second-year quarterback. The Jets picked Gase to replace Todd Bowles because they think he's the right guy to lead Sam Darnold's development after Darnold spent his rookie season enduring growing pains, but also flashing plenty of potential. Peyton Manning thinks Gase is the right man for the job, but it's OK to be skeptical of Gase, who is coming off a three-year run in Miami best described as meh.
With the Dolphins, Gase posted a 23-25 record. In fairness to Gase, he was forced to coach half of those games without Ryan Tannehill as his starting quarterback. With Tannehill as the starter, the Dolphins made the playoffs once and went 13-11. Without him as the starter, they went 10-14, which is probably better than most teams would've fared with backups.
But the underlying numbers suggest that Gase got lucky. In three seasons, Gase never finished with a positive point differential. Even in 2016, when the Dolphins won 10 games, they got outscored by 17 points over the course of the season. Put together, Gase got outscored by 243 points in three seasons. In one-score games, Gase posted a 20-6 record, which is just insane. Twenty of his 23 wins in three seasons came by one score!
Adam Gase has his eyes on the prize. Literally.— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 14, 2019
This is some press conference. pic.twitter.com/vZxBs0gWeG
There are two ways of looking at that stat. The first is that Gase deserves credit for winning close games. Heck, we always give Bill Belichick and Tom Brady credit for winning close games. Doesn't Gase deserve the same treatment? The second way of looking at it is to say Gase's record in one-score games is bound to regress, because it involved a ton of luck -- and a ton of missed field goals. Put it this way, if Gase had won only half of his one-score games (13-13) and departed Miami with a 16-32 record, would he have gotten the Jets' job?
The good news is that we're about to find out if Gase was lucky he won so many close games or unlucky that the best quarterback he worked with was Tannehill, who missed half of his games. The Jets' job is a good one with a potential franchise quarterback already in place. Gase is supposedly a quarterback guru. Barring bad injury luck, he won't have many excuses.
If Gase succeeds in New York, we can classify his three-year run in Miami as an important learning experience with a bad franchise. If he fails, the Dolphins' underlying numbers with Gase will have been a warning sign that the Jets chose to ignore.
Matt LaFleur to the Packers: B+
The same criticisms for the Bengals' decision to hire Taylor exist for the Packers' decision to hire Matt LaFleur. He's inexperienced, but he got a head coaching job because of his ties to McVay.
LaFleur served as the offensive coordinator during the Rams' breakout season in 2017, but it was McVay calling the plays. He left Los Angeles last offseason to become the Titans' offensive coordinator and play-caller. In his lone season in Nashville, the Titans' offense ranked 25th in yards, 27th in points, and 22nd in DVOA. That might not be entirely LaFleur's fault given all of the injuries the Titans' offense dealt with, but nothing LaFleur did in Tennessee -- away from McVa, and with Marcus Mariota -- makes him especially qualified to be a coach already.
But we can't really knock the Packers for hiring him. After all, this is what we've all been asking them to do after watching Mike McCarthy saddle Aaron Rodgers with an antiquated offense for years, isn't it? And it's not like the Packers passed up on some genius offensive mind available for hire. They're taking a risk by hiring LaFleur, but it's an understandable risk given their circumstances. At least, unlike Taylor, LaFleur has experience calling plays for a full NFL season.
Vic Fangio to the Broncos: A-
The Broncos might have difficulty winning games in 2019 because they still haven't sorted out the quarterback position (no, Case Keenum still isn't the answer), but their decision to hire Vic Fangio should be praised even though most of the league has decided that hiring offensive coaches is the way to go. Fangio isn't an offensive coach, but in a market lacking obvious offensive masterminds, he's the next best thing.
What he is, is a defensive mastermind. He was just named the Assistant Coach of the Year for his work as the Bears' defensive coordinator this past season, when the Bears rode the league's best defense to a division crown. When Fangio arrived in Chicago, he inherited a defense that ranked 31st in points allowed. The Bears finished in the top 10 in points allowed in each of the past two seasons, including a first-place finish this past season. As the defensive coordinator of the 49ers before his move to Chicago, Fangio's defenses ranked in the top-10 in both yards and points allowed in all four of his seasons.
The Broncos can expect their defense to play well under Fangio with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb leading the way. It'll come down to their offense, which is less about Fangio and more about John Elway's ability to finally find a franchise quarterback. In the meantime, at least the Broncos will be strong defensively.
Freddie Kitchens to the Browns: A
This one is simple. For the Browns, it's all about pairing Baker Mayfield with a coach who knows how to develop him. After watching what Freddie Kitchens did with Mayfield during the second half of the season, why would the Browns have hired anyone else?
With Hue Jackson and Todd Haley for six games, Mayfield completed 58.3 percent of his passes, averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, threw eight touchdowns and six interceptions, posted a 78.9 passer rating, and got sacked 20 times. With Kitchens for eight games, Mayfield completed 68.4 percent of his passes, averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, threw 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, posted a 106.2 passer rating, and got sacked five times.
I don't care that much if Kitchens doesn't have much experience. The Browns' future depends entirely on Mayfield's development. And Kitchens already proved he's a perfect fit for that aspect of the job.
Bruce Arians to the Buccaneers: A
This one is also simple. Bruce Arians has been one of the league's best head coaches ever since he finally got the opportunity to lead a team after a long career as an offensive coordinator. In relief of Chuck Pagano with the Colts in 2012, he went 9-3. With the Cardinals from 2013-17, he went 49-30-1. The first year without him, the Cardinals went 3-13.
The Buccaneers are incredibly lucky he's coming out of retirement to coach them. So is Jameis Winston, who is entering the most important season of his career. In Arizona, Arians revived Carson Palmer's career and turned him into an MVP candidate. Winston has always been talented, but has failed to cut down on his turnovers and bouts of erratic play. It's easy to understand why Arians, who loves a deep passing game, wanted to coach him, even if he has several concerning flaws -- including his troubling history off the field.
Arians was the best coach available this offseason. He also managed to bring Todd Bowles with him, who for all of his flaws as a head coach, has been a tremendous defensive coordinator. Bowles will be needed to fix a Buccaneers defense coming off a disastrous season that saw them finish last in DVOA.
The Buccaneers might not win a ton of games during the 2019 season -- roster questions persist -- but they won hiring season by landing Arians.