There is precious little that can fully prepare one to be an NFL head coach. Even in the best of times, transitioning to that role for the first time – or switching to a new team – tends to be quite difficult.
There is no textbook and no curriculum to carry you, and there is no substitute for experience and know how, continuity of coaching roster and scheme when it comes to these situations. And that is with a normal offseason, where a new coach can spend untold hours every day in the building with his staff and can talk privately with players in his office or informally in the cafeteria at lunch or joke around walking off the practice field at OTAs or toggling between position group meetings interacting with players one-on-one.
Now imagine handling this task and doing so with a quarterback you have never met and staff that has spent almost no time together the past three months in which most of whom have never worked together in these roles ever before. Imagine doing it during the worst pandemic int his county in over 100 years, having to concoct a virtual offseason plan while also making contingencies for a training camp that might start late and end fast and include possibly no preseason games at all – and having a rebuilding team that desperately needs them.
Experience matters, now more than ever, and for many of the men making their first foray into the head coach role, or doing so with a new team, 2020 is likely to continue being an uphill climb. Navigating the work that still must get done virtually, while also providing a forum for players to speak out and interact about the ongoing police brutality that has gripped this country, is yet another challenge. Nothing has been normal, at all, for months, and no one knows when it will be. Coaches crave routine to establish their culture; nothing about 2020 thus far has been routine.
So, yeah, this is going to matter come September as games start counting in the standings. And, absolutely, some teams are going to be more limited and handcuffed by these realities than others. Here's the order in which coaches on franchises that opted to make a change in 2020 are best equipped to handle these issues and potential competitive balance problems.
None of these situations are ideal and I expect all of these teams to be at least somewhat limited by it, and none of these teams is going to compete for a Super Bowl (sorry, not even you, Dallas). It's a thing. It's a real thing. And it isn't letting up anytime soon with this being quite likely the shortest preseason we've ever seen as the NFL tries to find ways to play as many real games as possible.
1. Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
He has the best roster of this bunch, he is the only one bringing a Lombardi Trophy with him and inherits an offense that is loaded in the trenches and at the skill positions. Yeah, if Dak Prescott ends up playing out the 2020 season on the franchise tag, that is suboptimal, and yeah, this defense is probably going to stink again. But McCarthy kept Kellen Moore as the OC after Dak's breakout season, so that allows for built-in continuity and he has strong and long ties to a lot of his assistants and he plays in a weak division and the playoff field is getting expanded. He could get in the playoffs despite this trying offseason, but there will be wrinkles and hiccups and all of the lost time will matter – especially with Philadelphia experiencing far fewer of those growing pains.
2. Matt Rhule, Panthers
Yeah, he is a rookie head coach in terms of the NFL, but what he did at Temple and Baylor is beyond legit and he has faced far tougher challenges before. I think he has a nice enough mix of college and pro coaches and the fact that his new OC, Joe Brady, and new QB, Teddy Bridgewater, have worked together before and already know the offense and speak the same language is huge. They devoted the entire draft to defense and having just been in the college game, Rhule has a unique prism into this draft class (go back to Peter Carroll's early drafts and same with John Harbaugh when they jumped from college to the pros; it can really help). This team is going to be better than many think, and while I won't predict the playoffs given the strength of this division, a .500 season wouldn't shock me if Rhule can whip the defense into shape a little.
3. Ron Rivera, Redskins
Sure, he has more experience in the NFL than Rhule and he had a nice tenure with Carolina, but he is being asked to wear more hats than ever before with greater power than ever before with a franchise that hasn't gotten much right in 20 years of this ownership and with a young QB who enters his second season with a brutal roster on that side of the ball and already on his third coordinator. Good luck with that. Some in Vegas are begging the Skins to be in the hunt for the first overall pick and while I think the defense will prevent that, this team has a ways to go. It is very young in critical areas and all of this lost time will hurt. Rivera commands immediate respect, and initial pressure to win will be scant, but I believe it will take until 2021 before he can start turning this thing in the right direction.
4. Kevin Stefanski, Browns
I hear rave reviews about how he has balanced the need to impart a new system in this key offseason with also interacting with players and provided them a space to speak freely about what is going on in the world. He is super smart with a high emotional intelligence as well, and I expect him to simplify things for Baker Mayfield and that offense with heavy personnel, a dominant ground game and a reliance on the quick passing game. You could make the case he has the best roster of this group – if Baker Mayfield plays like he did in 2018 and not 2019. Having to sort that out, and deal with the big personalities of some skill players, keeps him down on this list, though I thought long and hard about putting him third because the schedule sets up well and I think the Browns could mess around and make the playoffs if they catch a few breaks … but I can't believe the Browns catch breaks until I see it with my own eyes.
5. Joe Judge, Giants
This is going to be a chore … and possibly a disaster. Very young coach in Gotham, where they suddenly churn them out (or hire the wrong guy). Not a staff loaded with dynamic leaders and his two former head coaches on staff include a guy who became a laughingstock as a one-on-done in Cleveland (Freddie Kitchens) and a guy who players thought was going to be fired years ago in Dallas before Jerry Jones finally let his contract run out (Jason Garrett). The roster is bleak and the QB remains an unknown going into year 2 with a fumbling problem that won't get fixed in OTAs. Not a staff loaded with the brightest offensive minds at the vanguard of modern passing attacks, plus he is a Bill Belichick guy and that track record is awful. Even with a full offseason to endear themselves to the players, most of his former pupils have done the exact opposite. Add in the fact the GM has been in a long slump and was firmly on the hot seat at the end of the season, and all the drama and pressure that comes from being in New York, and you have the makings of one steep uphill climb.