2020 Coaching Carousel part 1
Uncertainty Surrounding Year’s Changes Compounded By Circumstances
Stop me if you’ve heard this, but in these unusual times. ... Okay. I’m kind of just trolling you, but the truth is the unique circumstances surrounding pretty much everything we’ve done this year add a new element of difficulty to all our fantasy football assessments and evaluations. Coaching changes always add a layer of uncertainty, but with the league doing their usual installation and other on-field work virtually thanks to the pandemic, understanding what these moves might mean is more challenging than ever.
Still, the work must be done. So, let’s set the table.
New Head Coach: Matt Rhule (replaces Ron Rivera)
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Joe Brady, DC Phil Snow
The Panthers found their next head coach in former Baylor boss Matt Rhule. As NFL.com’s Nick Shook noted at the time, Rhule’s resume of demonstrated success was enough to convince Carolina to bring him in as a candidate, and his interview sealed the deal. The Panthers moved on from Ron Rivera with roughly a month to go during the season, as owner David Tepper moved to put his imprint on the football operation.
Rhule becomes the fifth coach in Panthers history, joining Dom Capers, George Seifert, John Fox, and Rivera.
Rhule rose to prominence by taking over an embattled Baylor football program and turning it into a contender in a short amount of time, going from 1-11 in 2017 to 11-3 in 2019. That quick rebound was more than enough for NFL franchises to come calling.
Rhule wasn’t a hot college candidate dipping his toes into the NFL waters for the first time, either. The coach gained a year of professional experience in 2012 under former Giants coach Tom Coughlin when he served as assistant offensive line coach in New York before returning to the collegiate ranks to begin his turnaround of Temple.
Rhule ultimately fit Tepper’s job description, “the right mix of old-school discipline and toughness with modern and innovative processes.”
Beyond that, Rhule, 44, is building a staff that’s among the youngest in the league. Joe Brady is set to be the NFL’s youngest offensive coordinator at age 30. The top three spots definitely rank as the league’s least experienced with Rhule, Brady and defensive coordinator Phil Snow combining for seven years of NFL experience, none as a head coach or coordinator.
Snow, 64, has four years in the NFL as a defensive assistant/linebackers coach with the Detroit Lions from 2005 to 2008.
The general inexperience doesn’t concern star tailback Christian McCaffrey.
“You see rookies come into the NFL all the time and have great years, and they have zero experience in the NFL,” McCaffrey told ESPN.com. “It can be the same with a coach.”
Adaptability also is key. McCaffrey has observed that with Brady.
“He’s able to utilize not just me, but everybody,” McCaffrey said. “And put everybody in a position they can best help the team win. That’s something that’s not easy to do. It’s not one system. It’s a constant changing.
“You look at what he did with the LSU program this year, possibly the greatest college team of all times. It was fun to watch as an outsider before I knew he was our coach. Now that I know he is [the Panthers’ coach], I’m extremely excited.”
New Head Coach: Kevin Stefanski (replaces Freddie Kitchens)
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Alex Van Pelt, DC Joe Woods
Former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is the Cleveland Browns’ new head coach. The Browns couldn’t officially hire Stefanski until the Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs, and less than 24 hours after the Divisional round loss to the 49ers, the hiring was announced.
The decision drew additional scrutiny given the performance of the Vikings’ offense in that loss in San Francisco where 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh – another candidate for the Browns’ vacancy – put the clamps on Stefanski’s offense. Indeed, Stefanski’s offense was outgained 308 yards to 147, and outrushed 186 yards to 21. The 49ers had 21 first downs to Minnesota’s seven and won the time of possession battle 38:27 to 21:33.
Still, Stefanski earned the nod as replacement for yet another one-and-done coach in Cleveland, Freddie Kitchens.
Stefanski hired Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt to be his offensive coordinator.
Van Pelt, 49, spent the last two seasons coaching Andy Dalton and Ryan Finley in Cincinnati. Before that, he had coached QBs and RBs in Green Bay (2012-17), QBs in Tampa Bay (2010-11), QBs in Buffalo (2008-09) and QBs with the Frankfurt Galaxy (2005). Van Pelt was also the Bills’ offensive coordinator for one season under Dick Jauron in 2009. This will be his first OC job since then.
Under Stefanski, Van Pelt will be tasked with maximizing the rich talent on Cleveland’s offense, from Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb to Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Despite the resulting 6-10 record and Mayfield’s 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 2019, the team still professes faith in the former No. 1 overall choice. Mayfield, though, faces a big season, in need of a rebound, in 2020.
All that being the case, it’s worth noting we still haven’t learned if Van Pelt will call plays in Cleveland.
Still, the overall plan is clear.
“It all starts with the run game and the play-action off it and the keepers that come off from the action,” Van Pelt said. “Obviously, having Nick is huge and Kareem [Hunt], those two are two of the best in the league. The outside receivers are tremendous players. To be able to come in and put an offense together with two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,400-yard rusher is pretty exciting as a coach.”
Stefanski hired former 49ers secondary coach Joe Woods as defensive coordinator. The move came as no surprise; the two worked together for eight seasons in Minnesota. Woods, who was Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2017-18, replaces Steve Wilks. The former Arizona Cardinals’ coach was let go after one season following Kitchens’ firing.
Woods coached the Niners’ defensive backs last season and, with a huge assist from a relentless pass rush, the group led the NFL in passing defense, allowing 169.2 yards per game (while topping the NFL in fewest yards allowed per passing attempt at 5.92).
In Cleveland, he will take over a young defense with promise but some holes.
New Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (replaces Jason Garrett)
Noteworthy Newcomers: DC Mike Nolan, ST John Fassel
As NFL.com’s Nick Shook framed it, “For as long as it took the Cowboys to seemingly move on from Jason Garrett, it seems as if they’re wasting little time in naming his successor.” The day after the Cowboys formally announced the firing of Garrett, they announced the hiring of Mike McCarthy – just two days after he interviewed with the team.
In February 2011, McCarthy led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl XLV win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at AT&T Stadium, his new home with the Cowboys.
McCarthy compiled a 125-77-2 record with the Packers and made the playoffs in nine of his 13 seasons. In addition to the Super Bowl season, the Packers made it to the NFC Championship Game two times, but his tenure ended sourly, missing the playoffs in 2017 and getting fired after 12 games in 2018.
McCarthy played a key role in the development of Aaron Rodgers, and the Cowboys believe he will be good for Dak Prescott, who is entering his fifth season.
Meanwhile, McCarthy called the plays in Green Bay while he doubled as head coach. It was long assumed he would do the same in Dallas. He won’t. McCarthy convinced Kellen Moore to remain as offensive coordinator, and Moore will continue to call the plays.
“My plan is for him to be the play caller,” McCarthy told the Dallas Morning News.
McCarthy said he would implement his system into what the Cowboys have already been doing for years because he thinks that will be best for Dak Prescott’s development. So, while Moore will be the play caller, McCarthy will be involved in the process more than Garrett was, especially on game day.
The language of the offense will be the same, but McCarthy will make his additions that should help Prescott even if his numbers don’t dramatically improve over the 4,902 yards and 30 touchdown passes he had in 2019.
Remember, the team has had three different play callers since 2013 – Bill Callahan (2013), Scott Linehan (2014 to 2018) and Moore (2019), so the continuity will be a positive for Prescott and his supporting cast.
Mike Nolan, the former 49ers’ head coach who was serving as linebackers coach for the Saints, was tabbed as defensive coordinator. The Cowboys will continue to use a four-man front on defense, McCarthy said. Nolan has coached both the 3-4 and the 4-3. According to Archer, Nolan has shown a willingness to be aggressive and creative in other spots, which has allowed his defenses to take the ball away certainly more than Dallas has in recent years.
Also worth noting, the Cowboys hired John Fassel as their special teams coordinator.
One of the NFL’s best, Fassel’s contract was up with the Rams, whom he helped to the Super Bowl two years ago. Jerry Jones once said, “Special teams is a total reflection of coaching.”
The Cowboys were among the lowest ranked in several special-teams units in 2020. The addition of Fassel is clearly a step in the right direction.
NEW YORK GIANTS
New Head Coach: Joe Judge (replaces Pat Shurmur)
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Jason Garrett, DC Patrick Graham
Less than an hour after the news broke that Rhule would be Carolina’s next head coach, the Giants, who reportedly had some interest in the former Baylor coach, responded by naming Patriots special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach Joe Judge as their next head coach.
As Shook pointed out, Judge’s name was rarely mentioned when folks gushed over the Patriots’ skilled staff, but his work has been evident for much of the last decade. Look no further than the punt team’s effectiveness in Super Bowl LIII, in which the Patriots won the field-position battle by pinning the Rams inside their own 10-yard line three times.
Judge has been receiving direct tutelage on how to become an effective head coach from the greatest ever in Bill Belichick.
Shortly before word came that the Giants agreed to terms with Judge, there was a report that the Giants wanted to interview Jason Garrett for the position. Their interest in Garrett didn’t end with the decision to hire Judge, however. The former Cowboys’ coach was hired as offensive coordinator.
Adding offensive experience to the staff was essential. Garrett and Kitchens, who was hired as tight ends coach, should provide Judge with the experience necessary to rework the offense and orient the unit in the right direction.
It will begin with a run-first mentality.
Garrett’s running game in Dallas featured downhill schemes designed to feature power backs such as DeMarco Murray and Ezekiel Elliott. This might have to be altered to fit the Giants, with star running back Saquon Barkley a centerpiece of the offense. Garrett runs a timing-based offense, a system he learned from Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese. It is known to be quarterback-friendly and simple. It allowed a young Tony Romo and Prescott to experience immediate success.
This is promising for quarterback Daniel Jones, who will be entering his second season with the Giants. He flashed as a rookie, throwing 24 touchdown passes in Pat Shurmur’s varied offense, which had some Turner influence (they worked together for several years in Minnesota).
The defensive coordinator is Patrick Graham, 41, who held the same position with the Miami Dolphins last season. Graham will also serve as assistant head coach.
As NJ.com’s Matt Lombardo pointed out, part of what makes the Patriots so difficult to beat is how difficult it is to get a read on what Belichick’s game plan will look like from week to week or even quarter to quarter.
According to Raanan, the Giants’ young defensive backs will be most affected by Graham because the group, from DeAndre Baker, Corey Ballentine and Sam Beal to Jabrill Peppers, was overmatched as a whole last season, but Graham’s reliance on man-to-man coverage will be welcomed.
New Head Coach: Ron Rivera (replaces Jay Gruden
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Scott Turner, DC Jack Del Rio
Ron Rivera, who was fired in early December by the Carolina Panthers and told reporters before he left “I will coach again,” landed his next head coaching job about as soon as possible, becoming the latest in charge of the club Rivera’s deal is for five years.
Rivera’s eight and a half-season tenure with the Panthers came to an end at the start of 2019’s final month. The decision was the result of an underperforming Panthers team that appeared rudderless without the services of Cam Newton, who was sidelined for the season due to injury.
Rivera had a reputation in Carolina for being firm with players but also for getting to know them beyond the field, which could be a benefit in Washington after former HC Jay Gruden’s less-disciplined approach.
Rivera, who compiled a 76-63-1 record with Carolina, will try to revive a Washington franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015 and hasn’t won a post-season game since 2005. As ESPN.com reminded readers, Rivera quickly turned around the Panthers after taking over a team that went 2-14 in 2010, the season before he took over. Three seasons later, they went 12-4 and played in the NFC championship. In 2015, they were 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl.
He’ll inherit a team with plenty of young players, including quarterback Dwayne Haskins. By season’s end, partly because of injuries, Washington used 12 players aged 25 or younger as consistent starters.
Meanwhile, Scott Turner’s time as interim offensive coordinator of the Panthers has earned him a new opportunity. He’ll follow the coach who brought him on board with the Panthers to Washington, where Turner will receive his first full-time shot at being an offensive coordinator in the NFL with the development of Haskins a major part of his job.
Turner found himself calling Carolina’s plays following the firing of Rivera and shifting of his father, Norv, to special assistant to the head coach.
Scott Turner’s offense responded, scoring 44 points and racking up 759 yards of offense in their first two outings following the staff changes. Turner managed to maximize the abilities of McCaffrey, who racked up 310 total yards in those two contests. Haskins will have to learn a new offense and new terminology, but once he does, ESPN.com’s John Keim believes the play-action game down the middle of the field could suit the second-year signal caller well.
Former Jaguars and Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio will serve as defensive coordinator.
As Profootballtalk.com notes, Del Rio has a strong resume, and a common former address with Rivera. Del Rio was John Fox’s defensive coordinator in Carolina in 2002, helping them go from the league’s worst defense the previous year to second overall (adding Julius Peppers helped, too).
Worth noting, the defense will be switching to a 4-3 base scheme after a decade in a 3-4.
KEY OFFENSIVE CHANGES
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Bill Lazor, John DeFilippo
After missing the postseason in 2019, the Bears hired former Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor as their next OC. Lazor will replace Mark Helfrich, who was fired along with a slew of offensive assistants two days after the end of Chicago’s 8-8 2019 campaign. In addition, John DeFilippo was hired as quarterbacks coach after former quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone was promoted to passing game coordinator.
According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Dickerson. Lazor and Ragone should serve as a better support system for head coach Matt Nagy, who calls the plays. All involved will be focused on fixing an offense that regressed with Mitchell Trubisky under center in 2019; the Bears ranked 29th in both points and yards per game.
Trubisky’s improvement will go a long toward determining whether the Bears can stay competitive in the NFC North and the conference. If not, all the team’s offensive coaches have experience working with Nick Foles, who joined the team this offseason to compete with Trubisky.
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Pat Shurmur
The Broncos swapped offensive coordinators this offseason, wiping out Rich Scangarello in favor of Shurmur, who was fired by the Giants after just two seasons as head coach. Head coach Vic Fangio has given Shurmur at least one demand: Create explosive plays. “That’s what I like,” Fangio said. “Contrary to the stereotype that’s always out there, you know, defensive head coach, you know, wants to ground and pound, considers the pitch to the halfback a pass – that’s not me. I like to be aggressive.”
As a defensive coach, Fangio knows how difficult it is to defend offenses that can stretch the field vertically, and strike from any patch of grass.
The Broncos’ offense did little of that in 2019. For the season, Denver scored 16 or fewer points nine times, ended the year 28th in scoring and passing and 30th in third-down rate. Denver generated just 19 passing plays of at least 30 yards, tied for 17th in the NFL. On the plus side for Fangio and Shurmur, second-year quarterback Drew Lock showed a greater proclivity to push the ball downfield. He had five passing plays of 30-plus yards in his five starts. The combination of Lock and rising star Courtland Sutton is a duo that could give defenses nightmares. Rookie tight end Noah Fant also flashed playmaking ability when he wasn’t handcuffed by bad drops.
Adding rookie WR Jerry Jeudy, another field-tilting weapon for Lock, could make the Broncos’ offense deadly – Lock willing.
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Jay Gruden
The Jaguars hired Jay Gruden as their next offensive coordinator.
It will be Gruden’s job to revitalize an offense with a more potent vertical passing game and to develop Gardner Minshew, who went 6-6 as a rookie starter, into a more polished quarterback going into his second season. Gruden will get an assist in that regard from new QBs coach Ben McAdoo, another former NFL head coach, who lost out to Gruden for the OC spot, but still landed in Jacksonville.
Change was needed. The Jaguars ranked near the bottom of the league this season in scoring at 26th (18.6) and were 31st in red-zone scoring percentage for touchdowns (40.43). Gruden’s offense is designed around play-action passing, taking shots downfield and quick reads by the quarterback.
Needless to say, Minshew’s development will be important to fantasy owners.
The good news?
ESPN.com’s Mike DiRocco points out that Gruden has a track record of helping a young quarterback grow. Gruden’s first season as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator coincided with Andy Dalton’s rookie season, and Gruden helped Dalton increase his passer rating each season.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Kevin O’Connell, DC Brandon Staley, ST John Bonamego
The Rams filled openings at all three coordinator spots with the hirings of Kevin O’Connell, Brandon Staley and John Bonamego.
O’Connell, 34, will serve as offensive coordinator after spending the previous three seasons with Washington. He worked his way up from quarterbacks coach in 2017 to offensive coordinator in 2019. (The Rams did not have an offensive coordinator last season with head coach Sean McVay doing double duty.)
Staley, 37, replaces Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. He joins the Rams after spending last season as the Broncos’ outside linebackers coach.
Bonamego, 56, arrives in Los Angeles after spending last season in his second stint as the Lions’ special teams coordinator. He replaces Fassel.
According to ESPN.com’s Lindsey Thiry, the Rams’ offense will be most affected by O’Connell because his arrival will provide assistance and creativity in putting together the weekly game plan and will reduce McVay’s workload to allow him to focus on managing the entire team. Staley will have big shoes to fill following the departure of Phillips, and he will have much to prove in his first gig as an NFL defensive coordinator. Bonamego is in a position similar to Staley after the departure of Fassel, who motivated his players in a way that most said they had never been inspired before.
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Chan Gailey, DC Josh Boyer
The Dolphins hired Chan Gailey as their offensive coordinator after firing Chad O’Shea at the end of the season. As Profootballtalk.com noted, Gailey last ran an offense four seasons ago. But Gailey, 68, did coach Ryan Fitzpatrick with the Bills and the Jets. In fact, Fitzpatrick’s most successful season came with Gailey as the offensive coordinator with the Jets in 2015 when he threw for 3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns. The Jets finished 10th in total offense and 11th in points that season.
Fitzpatrick has committed to a 16th season, although the Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa fifth overall and the veteran will also be expected to groom his eventual replacement.
In general, ESPN.com’s Cameron Wolfe expects a scheme that is friendly for an athletic quarterback, one that welcomes three- and four-receiver sets and one that allows a young roster to play freely and avoid confusion.
The Dolphins promoted Josh Boyer to defensive coordinator after the incumbent, Graham, was hired by the Giants for that same role. Boyer was the defensive passing game coordinator and cornerbacks coach in 2019.
Boyer specializes in getting the most out of young, undiscovered talent, as he did in turning CB Nik Needham into a starter last season.
Noteworthy Newcomers: OC Gary Kubiak, DCs Adam Zimmer, Andrew Patterson
Gary Kubiak is back in the play-calling chair after spending the 2019 season as a senior advisor. The new Vikings’ offensive coordinator couldn’t be happier to dive back into the play-by-play rush of calling an NFL game. After former OC Stefanski accepted the head coaching gig in Cleveland, it was natural for Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to turn to Kubiak, assuming the 58-year-old with a history of health issues wanted the job.
The Vikings’ passing attack could change slightly with Kubiak replacing Stefanski as the play-caller. After shifting schemes the past several offseasons, however, much of the plan remains in place. The foundation was put there by Kubiak when he joined Minnesota last offseason, including his running attack, in which Dalvin Cook thrived.
Bottom line? There will be continuity on offense.
The Vikings are going with a pair of coaches over the team’s vacant defensive coordinator role, as Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer will share those duties in 2020. Patterson has been Minnesota’s defensive line coach for the past six seasons and has helped the Vikings develop one of the league’s most formidable fronts. Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son, has been the Vikings’ linebackers coach since 2014.
Patterson and Zimmer fill the role that George Edwards held from 2014-2019.
Minnesota generated the fifth-most sacks last season (tied with San Francisco) and has always been one of the better D-lines in the NFL. With Patterson as co-coordinator, this unit will continue to be the bread and butter of the defense.