The NFL can be full of surprises this time of year. If you would have told me that Matt LaFleur and Kliff Kingsbury were going to be the first two head coaches hired in the NFL in 2019, and that one of them was going to land one of the most iconic jobs in the history of the league, well, I would not have believed you.
It's a little bit amazing, on the surface, that the first two guys hired have combined for zero career games coaches in the NFL and 16 games, combined, as an NFL play caller. Actually, it's staggeringly stunning, even in a year in which there were so few hotshot candidates for the eight jobs that were open. But then, well, the more you think about it, the less surprising it gets. Because the two hires fit a particular archetype the league is favoring to a large degree, and while the names are surely not what many expected, the hiring of Kingsbury and LaFleur clearly fit the model that NFL's teams are bending over backwards to secure.
They are both seen as quarterback whisperers/offensive play callers. They are both young and, seemingly, fairly dynamic. They have ties to Sean McVay. And they have been around young, stud quarterbacks and look the part. They check every box from a marketing standpoint. They are in line with what the groupthink in the NFL – always dominant – is espousing and, for as bold as they may appear to be on the surface, they are also entirely cookie cutter when viewed within the prism of what teams are prizing these days.
You want to get my attention? Go hire Mike Kafka, the Chiefs first-year quarterback coach who did so much behind the scenes work with Patrick Mahomes his "redshirt" year in KC while running the scout team, or go hire Andy Reid's special teams coach, or Chris Jones, the coach/GM of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, or hell, go grab the real thing when it comes to the master of the "Air Raid" offense, and hire wild man Mike Leach himself.
That would be bold, and ballsy and out there and show a certain type of conviction and vision that most would not adapt. But, I'm sorry, after taking a day to digest all of this, you can blow me over with a feather but hiring a guy who McVay gave the offensive coordinator title to without having any of the real power, or hiring the Leach disciple who couldn't win anything of note with Patrick Mahomes or Baker Mayfield in college – when they were men among boys – yet those two reach unprecedented highs as boys among men when coached up at the NFL level.
I spoke to a Rams source and asked him which McVay assistant did more for the program and was more integral to their offense – LaFleur (who the Falcons opted not to retain as the quarterback coach just two years ago) or Rams current quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. "Zac, I would have to say Zac," he said. And Kingsbury has finished more than one-game over .500 only once (2013), and he alienated Mayfield and he coached one All-American (Jace Amaro!) and I don't recall Mahomes being a consensus top five pick under his watch or even winning many games and I definitely know in one of Mahomes' final Big 12 games they went up to Iowa State (coached by Matt Campbell who has rebuffed NFL overtures) and got whipped, 66-10, in a year in which they finished, 6-7 (again, with Patrick bleeping Mahomes).
Sorry. I'm just not buying it.
Maybe I end up printing out this column in two years and eating it with a side of fava beans … and maybe both of these teams are hiring new coaches, oh, within 22 months of now. The bottom line for each is the Cardinals have major issues across the roster and just proved they are very willing to fire a coach after less than a calendar year and they have a GM under fire. And if you don't win right away with Aaron Rodgers – who was perfectly willing to bow up against a coach with 135 wins to his resume – well, suffice to say that problems might arise and that heat will get hot quite quickly.
Godspeed to them both. They will need to construct exemplary staffs with men with diverse areas of expertise and overcome some odds to make this all work. By Week 4 of next season, no one will care how often they talk to McVay or how cool they are with Kyle Shanahan or how many yards the offenses they were once associated with compiled.
Some other thoughts on the NFL's coaching searches:
- Imagine being Jim Caldwell right now. The guy went 36-28 with the Lions – the Lions! – and had three winning seasons in four years there, and he is having to take a backseat to this crew of upstarts. Look at what Detroit was before he got there, and what they are now, and the cool, steady presence he has and the ability to keep a team on solid footing no matter what. IS he super dynamic? Nope. But he wins games and players like and respect him and to this point it appears he is not getting the consideration he merits. Many a wise coaching agent has told me over the years that beware teams that are so eager to comply with the Rooney Rule with their initial interview(s), as it tends to portend them trying to merely comply rather than deeply explore the full roster of diverse candidates available. Sadly, seems to be holding true again.
- Hard to envision more than two defensive coaches, tops, being hired despite a quarter of the league needing a new coach. The Dolphins, I expect to hire Pats defensive coordinator Brian Flores or Cowboys defensive coach Kris Richard for their job – barring a trade for John Harbaugh – as the opposite to what they just had in Adam Gase. But they may end up being the anomaly. The Broncos are deciding between Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak and Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and the Bengals are still considering some defensive coaches, but in the end I expect two defensive-minded coaches, tops. This despite guys like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll and Nick Saban and John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin being widely considered among the best in the world at this. I'm sorry, but if I was running a team the combination of disciplinarian defensive head coach coupled with a dynamic young OC is what I would strive for.
- The Jets should hire Matt Rhule of Baylor at this point. I've been reporting for a while that this would be the year of the college coaching candidates and the year of the NFL "retread" head coach, and both are coming to fruition. Rhule has deep experience on both sides of the ball and turned around a moribund Temple program and is digging Baylor out of the abyss and he has NFL experience under Tom Coughlin with the Giants and he has ample organization-building and play-calling experience and Colts GM Chris Ballard, who interviewed him last year and has the Midas touch these days, fully vouches for him. Go ahead and do it.
- If I am the Bengals I am thinking long and hard about Eric Bieniemy as my head coach. I could see Vance Joseph as the defensive coordinator.
- Would not be surprised at all if in two years from now Todd Bowles is the head coach of the Bucs. This will very much be a year-to-year proposition for Bruce Arians at this point with his health and at this stage of his career, and Bowles is going to make an impact right away with that long-suffering defense.
- The Browns should go ahead and retrain Freddie Kitchens and Gregg Williams if at all possible. Unless they have a college coach in their back pocket – like Campbell from Iowa State – then of their known candidates stick with what you know.
- When LaFleur and Kingsbury are the first two coaches off the board, then what is John Harbaugh worth? No reason for him to be in any hurry to do a contract extension with Baltimore, and some enterprising team should put in an interview request for him to facilitate potential trade talks. Harbaugh gambling on himself, a la Joe Flacco a few years back, and coaching out a lame duck year would put him in a unique spot a year from now with every interested college and pro program chasing him down. Kirk Cousins hit the market in his prime and got $84M fully guaranteed. Jimbo Fisher got $75M guaranteed. Carroll just got $11M a year. I'd pull a Scott Boras and take my client to the market barring the Ravens making a truly remarkable offer and let the market speak 11 months from now.