Anything that could've gone wrong in 2020, did, and a whole lot more that's never been witnessed in the history of the NFL. Teams were forced to adapt to having no minicamp, no preseason and a truncated, socially-distanced training camp due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, and that hit five teams in particular much harder than others. Those who underwent a regime change only weeks ahead of the world being shut down saw their hopes of starting on April 6 -- two weeks prior than teams who retained their head coaches for 2020 -- go swirling down the porcelain hole, headlined by the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and three-fourths of the NFC East.
Needless to say, most of them struggled mightily throughout the season as they tried to install their system and acclimate to a new roster of players on the fly, but at least one grabbed the bull by the horns and wrestled it into submission. To be fair, not every bull was the same, because some came with enough reinforcements to rival the famous annual run in Spain, but in the end, everyone gets a grade for their respective successes and/or lack thereof.
That said, let's rank the NFL head coaches who were asked to overcome virtually insurmountable odds in an unprecedented calendar year.
Kevin Stefanski, Browns: A+
This guy is in a class of his own on this list.
The number of times the Browns have reshuffled their coaching staff and front office is dizzying, as is the number of occurrences in which they've been forced to jettison a quarterback to try and right the ship. Stefanski was truly up against it when he was offered and accepted the job in Cleveland, having never once been a head coach and hoping to following in the footsteps of talented minds like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur, and for an organization that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2002. All he did was walk in and help Baker Mayfield reach a new height, en route to the Browns finishing with an 11-5 record -- the most by the Browns since 1994 -- and a playoff meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round.
There were some stumbles along the way, yes, but no matter what happens to the Browns in the tournament, Stefanski's grade here is written in stone -- hard-earned as it was. The Browns found their guy, and the fun times are seemingly just getting started for the rabid Dawg Pound. And after decades of futility, few fanbases deserve the success more, if we're being honest. And, as a postscript here, Stefanski achieves all of this without Odell Beckham, Jr. on the field, instead figuring out how to win without one of the most talented wideouts in the league. That sound you hear is a round of applause for the young, bright-minded Stefanski, and the Browns for finally getting it right at head coach.
Ron Rivera, Washington: B-
He won the division, and that matters.
Granted, it matters less when that division is the lowly NFC East, but what Rivera gets added credit for is walking into one of the most toxic organizations in the entire league (and sports on the whole) and helped to install a budding new culture of accountability in those around him not named Dan Snyder. Taking the NFC East wasn't easy, although it could've been, and most of the added challenge came with the fact Washington couldn't lock in on a definitive starter -- for a few reasons. After quickly seeing former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins wasn't the answer, Rivera demoted him to third string, only to be forced to reinsert him as starter when Alex Smith was absent with injury, ultimately releasing Haskins due to poor play and bad decisions off the field.
With Smith back for Week 17 against the willfully comatose Philadelphia Eagles, Washington got the job done, as expected. So, again, winning the NFC East is an achievement, but not as grandiose as in years past, Rivera's grade buoyed by culture change and what looks to be a turned around franchise -- albeit one that still needs a QB of the future.
Joe Judge, Giants: C+
Judge went from a comedic punchline to a tough out in 2020.
When the Giants hired him as head coach, foregoing on hiring bigger, more proven names during a time when Washington inked Rivera and the Cowboys reeled in Mike McCarthy, there was no shortage of groans from the New York faithful and chuckles from those outside the organization. No, Judge didn't turn the Giants into a force to be reckoned with, but he made and kept them competitive despite the loss of all-world running back Saquon Barkley, while working with newly-hired offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to install a new offense. Much like the others on this list, Judge had no shortage of handicaps to deal with, but at one point had former first-round pick Daniel Jones playing the best football of his career -- leading to a four-game win streak that was capped with an eye-opening upset of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13.
The wheels fell off for a bit after that due to injuries to Jones, but when they need to rally to save their season in Week 17 against the Cowboys, they did just that to finish at 6-10 on the season (the record dragging down his grade). Judge and a resurgent Giants defense pummeled Andy Dalton into submission and gave themselves a chance to steal the NFC East crown from Washington, had the Eagles not decided they had zero interest in winning to end the season. Like Stefanski, Judge had never been a head coach before 2020, and the no-nonsense 39-year-old has become a promising one for the future.
Mike McCarthy, Cowboys: C-
The end of a movie is all most ever remember and ... oof.
Let me begin by restating my belief that the Cowboys made the right hire in McCarthy, but his inaugural season in Dallas can't simply be slathered with the justifiable handicaps, any more than the others named here. In the beginning, the slow start was easily attributable to issues with coaching installs and the subsequent confusion of players, and things only got worse when the team lost Tyron Smith, Blake Jarwin, La'El Collins, Dak Prescott and a slew of others for either the season or long stretches of time, but in the end, there were also several coaching decisions that will forever haunt McCarthy going into 2021 and beyond. Recency bias would have you focus on the ones from the implosion against the Giants -- e.g., -- but there are others, such as equating the thought of , only to end up doing it anyway out of obvious necessity.
The hiring of Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator also helped torpedo a season that might've otherwise been salvaged by a more capable mind, but instead ended as statistically the worst in the history of the NFL. McCarthy made his fair share of errors that helped keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs, but he also unleashed talent like safety Donovan Wilson and turned tight end Dalton Schultz into a starter, also rallying the troops to a three-game win streak in December that saw them go from a one percent chance of winning the NFC East to being close to actually doing it. There's a lot to figure out this offseason in Dallas, but the head coach isn't one of them, and that's a great start as they head into a 2021 reboot that will again feature a list of top talent returned from injury.
Matt Rhule, Panthers: D
"Not great, Bob."
Rhule finished his first year with the Panthers with a 5-11 record and struggling to field a competitive team on a weekly basis. At times, the Panthers were a tough opponent who could upset anyone and, at others, they were pushovers. The latter was never more evident than in the 33-7 shellacking in Week 17 at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, completing the season sweep of the series for Sean Payton. Of the Panthers' five wins, only one was in the NFC South, finishing with a 1-5 division record and 4-8 in the conference. The decision to move on from former league MVP Cam Newton isn't as much a thorn in Rhule's side here due to the poor season Newton had with the New England Patriots, but Teddy Bridgewater was signed to be Rhule's quarterback of both now and later -- only that's completely up in the air now.
Bridgewater regressed in Carolina, to the point of being benched for former XFL quarterback P.J. Walker in the season finale, and Rhule must now figure out what to do at the position in 2021 after awarding Bridgewater a three-year, $63 million deal in 2020. The offense ranked 24th in the league with only 21.9 points per game, and allowed 25.1 points per game defensively, which was a recipe for the very record they finished with. Things will get better with a healthy Christian McCaffrey in 2021, and his absence is why Rhule didn't land a failing grade but, all told, Panthers fans expected much more in Year 1.