2021 NFL Coaching Carousel

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris

Time to review the annual ritual we call the NFL Coaching Carousel. It’s an exercise of cleansing and renewal, one that brings hope to downtrodden NFL franchises and to fantasy managers looking to leverage newly-successful teams into greater success for their own teams. This year, we have seven clubs making wholesale changes starting at the top. We also have the usual assortment making changes at the coordinator level. Here’s the rundown:

Atlanta Falcons

Arthur Smith/Head Coach
Dave Ragone/Offensive Coordinator
Dean Pees/Defensive Coordinator

The Falcons hired Arthur Smith, who served as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator the past two seasons, as their new head coach. The 38-year-old Smith replaces Dan Quinn, whom the Falcons fired along with general manager Thomas Dimitroff last October after an 0-5 start.

Sm ith brings an entirely new offensive makeup that should be fairly similar to what he ran in Tennessee. In fact, it’s similar to the Falcons’ scheme from four years ago when QB Matt Ryan won an MVP on the way to a Super Bowl berth. And while Dave Ragone comes on board as offensive coordinator, Smith will call plays.

The Titans ranked fourth in the league in scoring during the regular season, averaging 30.7 points per game under Smith.

Tennessee finished the regular season averaging 396.4 total yards per game, good for third in the NFL. The Titans’ rushing attack posted 168.1 yards per game, second only to the Baltimore Ravens (191.9 yards).

Tennessee achieved rare balance under Smith. Running back Derrick Henry’s 2,027 rushing yards were the fifth-best rushing total ever, and he became only the eighth player to surpass the 2,000-yard plateau. Titans receiver A.J. Brown finished with 1,075 receiving yards, while teammate Corey Davis ended the season just 16 yards short of the 1,000-yard mark.

Some may point to Henry as the main difference here, and while Henry has played a large role in the success of Tennessee’s offense, USA Today’s Deen Worley notes King Henry didn’t become the player we know at the NFL level until Smith took over as the offensive coordinator in 2019. In Atlanta, free-agent running back Mike Davis will go into the season as the presumptive starter and can hopefully find some of that same bowling ball mentality that Henry displayed when Smith was his play caller.

On the other side of the ball, new coordinator Dean Pees’ defense is all about confusing the opponent, using multiple looks and attacking from anywhere on the field. The Falcons should look very different from week to week depending on the opponent.


Detroit Lions

Dan Campbell/Head Coach
Anthony Lynn/Offensive Coordinator
Aaron Glenn/Defensive Coordinator

Shortly after the Lions agreed to terms with their new general manager, (former Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes) Dan Campbell signed a six-year deal to serve as head coach.

Campbell spent the last five seasons as the assistant head coach and tight ends coach for the Saints. He has some NFL head-coaching experience, albeit in a temporary role.

The unheralded assistant became Miami’s interim head coach in 2015, leading the Dolphins to a 5-7 mark in 12 games following the early-season firing of Joe Philbin. With his NFL-sized frame (Campbell played in the league from 1999-2009), Campbell captured the attention of NFL fans with his sideline stature and Miami’s unexpected boost in performance under his leadership.

Overall, Campbell has 11 seasons of NFL coaching experience, spending six in Miami and the last five in New Orleans. Known as a blocker during his playing days, Campbell’s tight ends have excelled in this category, ranking fourth in run-blocking grade since 2016. Campbell’s on-field career brought him to Detroit during the franchise’s worst years, including its infamous 0-16 campaign in 2008. Campbell was at least spared from having to participate in most of that season (due to a season-ending hamstring injury suffered in early September), but he definitely has a familiarity with the Lions’ franchise, fanbase and their collective unsatisfied desires for success.

Campbell hired Aaron Glenn as defensive coordinator. Glenn and Campbell have worked together on the Saints’ staff for the last five years. The 48-year-old Glenn was a first-round draft pick of the Jets in 1994 and had a 15-year NFL playing career. This will be his first coordinator job after seven seasons as an assistant coach. Former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn comes on board as offensive coordinator.

As Tim Twentyman of the team’s official website notes, there’s been a lot of guesswork on what Detroit’s offense and defense will look like under the new schemes of Lynn and Glenn.

As a former running back, you would expect Lynn to really emphasize running the football – and he does. The presence of former NFL running back Duce Staley, who will be assistant head coach in Detroit, adds to that expectation. Heck, Campbell’s desire to be a smashmouth team does as well. But even though Lynn wants to establish the run, he also wants explosive plays downfield.

He has shown that he can be flexible and cater to his team’s strengths.

Remember, his Chargers led the league in passing yards in Lynn’s inaugural season. To follow that up, in 2018, the Chargers finished 10th in passing yards, and then subsequently finished sixth in both 2019 and 2020.




Houston Texans

David Culley/Head Coach
Lovie Smith/Defensive Coordinator

David Culley, 65, the Ravens’ assistant head coach/passing coordinator/wide receivers coach the past two seasons, became an NFL head coach for the first time and was thrown immediately into the fire that was the Texans’ tumultuous offseason. Culley has never even served as a coordinator in his NFL coachiing career, which made him “an outside-the-box” choice as John McClain of the Houston Chronicle put it.

As NFL.com noted, a veteran of 27 seasons, Culley was with the Bills prior to the Ravens and has also coached with the Chiefs, Eagles, Steelers and Buccaneers. His 14-season tenure with Philly from 1999-2012 stands as his longest stint with any team, and according to Philadelphia Inquirer staffer Jeff McLane, Culley was always one of the most respected assistants under Andy Reid in Philadelphia.

Most recently, Culley aided the Ravens in ascending to one of the best offenses in the league, though it was chiefly on the ground. Now, Culley will look to navigate a Texans franchise from its currently troubled waters.

Last season Texans’ head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was fired after the team’s 0-4 start, and the franchise then went on to hire Nick Caserio as the new general manager. That move reportedly upset franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had been told he would have at least some involvement with the process. Since then, uncertainty regarding the future of Watson, one of the finest quarterbacks in the NFL, has gone off the charts.

According to USA Today’s Mark Lane, one of the more curious elements of the Texans’ coaching overhaul was retaining offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. The 34-year-old was a branch on the O’Brien coaching tree, and his inclusion in the Culley regime seems odd given their lack of previous coaching associations.

Culley has said that Kelly shares some of his ideas on “winning football.” Houston hired Lovie Smith as defensive coordinator and associate head coach.

In 2020, the Texans’ defense ranked 24th in DVOA (defense adjusted value over average), according to Football Outsiders. Houston’s secondary especially struggled after losing top cornerback Bradley Roby in November when he was suspended for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.




Jacksonville Jaguars

Urban Meyer/Head Coach
Darrell Bevell/Offensive Coordinator
Joe Cullen/Defensive Coordinator

Urban Meyer, a three-time national championship-winning coach at the collegiate level, once again left retirement and the comfortable confines of the broadcast booth for the coaching ranks. This time, instead of another college job, he takes over as head coach of the Jaguars.

Jacksonville fired Doug Marrone after the team finished its worst season in franchise history (1-15).

The 56-year-old Meyer will take his first stab at the NFL with the job, bringing with him a sparkling overall mark of 187-32 compiled during seasons at Ohio State, Florida, Utah and Bowling Green. Meyer won a national title with the Buckeyes in the 2014 season to add to his two championships earned while coaching the Gators in 2006 and 2008.

Meyer walks into a somewhat advantageous situation, at least when it comes to quarterback. Jacksonville selected Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence as their signal-caller of the future with the first pick in April’s NFL Draft. But even if Lawrence develops into an immediate on-field leader, Meyer will need to demonstrate the same motivational skills that powered Ohio State to an incredible run of success in Jacksonville.

There is work to do here. The Jaguars haven’t been relevant since their surprising 2017 playoff run and gave up a franchise-record 492 points last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, they were the fifth team since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978 to allow at least 20 points in every game. Offensively, the Jaguars ranked 28th or worse in yards per game, rushing and scoring. They ranked 21st in passing, which was largely the by-product of falling behind big in games and having to abandon the run.

To help Meyer rectify all that, Darrell Bevell – coming off a stint as interim head coach of the Lions last season following the firing of Matt Patricia – will be the Jags’ offensive coordinator.

Bevell, who has previously served as offensive coordinator for the Seahawks and Vikings, will be Meyer’s point person on offense. But Brian Schottenheimer, most recently the offensive coordinator of the Seahawks replacing Bevell in the role, will be in the mix as the Jaguars’ passing game coordinator.

The three don’t have any experience coaching together at many points throughout their careers. Since coming together in Jacksonville they’ve been working on finding the right offensive approach and design to suit the direction Meyer wants to take the Jaguars moving forward. Whatever the case, they’ll also need to tailor the scheme to the personnel they’ll have on the roster, with Lawrence obviously being the focal point.

Joe Cullen will be the Jags’ defensive coordinator. This will be Cullen’s second stint in Jacksonville. He was the team’s defensive line coach from 2010 to ‘12 under coaches Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey. He has spent 14 seasons as an assistant in the NFL, but this will be his first job as a coordinator. The 53-year-old has been a defensive line coach for five teams (Lions, Jaguars, Browns, Buccaneers and Ravens). During his five seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens allowed the NFL’s fewest total yards (318.0) and fewest rushing yards (98.3).




Los Angeles Chargers

Brandon Staley/Head Coach
Joe Lombardi/Offensive Coordinator
Renaldo Hill/Defensive Coordinator

The Chargers hired Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their new head coach. This after Chargers GM Tom Telesco told reporters the team was not necessarily set on bringing in an offensive-minded head coach – even as reports indicated Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was the favorite for this job.

As ESPN.com’s Shelley Smith suggested, the change might be welcome, as the Chargers have typically hired offensiveminded coaches with limited success. Of the 16 coaches that the Chargers have hired in their history, 14 of them have come from an offensive background, including the last three (Norv Turner, Mike McCoy and Anthony Lynn).

Only Harland Svare (1971-73) and Marty Schottenheimer (2002-06) have bucked that trend. Now they’re going in that direction again with Staley, a defensive-minded coach who brings a grand offensive plan. Telesco has said it makes sense to hire a coach with a strong defensive plan, because he’s seen those types of coaches help quarterbacks dissect what an opposing defense is doing.

While Justin Herbert doesn’t seem to need a lot of help in that area, Staley will need to build a rapport with Herbert. Working in his favor, Staley is the rare defensive coach who sees the game through a quarterback’s eyes, having played the position at the University of Dayton. We’ll obviously be watching to see how Staley handles that side of the ball going forward – a process that got started with the hiring of Saints QB coach Joe Lombardi as his offensive coordinator.

Expect Lombardi to work to the young QB’s strengths. Herbert played without a huddle almost exclusively at Oregon, to the point where he initially wasn’t sure about huddles or huddle management when arriving in the NFL.

“No-huddle option is something that [Staley] has discussed and I’m all for,” Lombardi said. “I think these spread systems that play with that tempo is something that we’re building with here.”

As for Staley’s defensive prowess, his unit propelled the Rams to a 10-6 season and a wild-card playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks before the team exited the postseason with a loss to the Green Bay Packers. In his first year as an NFL coordinator, Staley’s defense ranked No. 1 in efficiency, yards allowed per game and points allowed per game.

In Los Angeles, Staley inherits a defensive unit that includes defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James.

Renaldo Hill, previously the Broncos’ defensive backs coach, will serve as defensive coordinator. He will be reunited with Staley, who was the outside linebackers coach in Denver in 2019.




New York Jets

Robert Saleh/Head Coach
Mike LaFleur/Offensive Coordinator
Jeff Ulbrich/Defensive Coordinator

The Jets hired Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator the past four seasons, to become their head coach. Saleh will become the Jets’ 20th head coach in franchise history and their 18th coach appointed to take the reins before the start of a new season. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Jets chose the 41-year-old Saleh in part because of his leadership abilities. Running one of the NFL’s best defenses didn’t hurt, either.

Saleh went into the hiring process believing the Jets had one of the top openings. And he landed it.

As for that defense. ... Under Saleh’s direction in 2020, San Francisco had a top-10 defense in total yards (fifth), rush yards (seventh) and pass yards (fourth). In ‘19 San Fran finished second overall in the league in total defense – with its 281.8 yards/game allowed the best by the team since 1997 – and first in pass defense – with the 169.2 pass yards/game allowed coming in as the best in the NFL since Rex Ryan and Jets defense allowed 153.7 pass yards/game in 2009. After coaching up that 49ers unit, Saleh received The Sporting News’ Coordinator of the Year award.

Similar rankings occurred in Saleh’s previous pro stops over the past 16 seasons. At Jacksonville from 2014-16 he was the Jaguars’ linebackers coach, and the team improved to sixth overall (and fifth vs. the pass) in his final season with the Jags. From 2011-13 he was Seattle’s defensive quality control coach focusing on LBs and the Seahawks’ defense rose to No. 1 in the league overall (and No. 1 against the pass and in scoring) for his last year in the Great Northwest in 2013.

Jeff Ulbrich, most recently the Falcons’ defensive coordinator, will serve in that role under Saleh. The two coaches were introduced to one another during their time in Seattle, learning under Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. Ulbrich will call New York’s defensive plays.

Saleh brings 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, the brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, with him as his offensive coordinator. LaFleur accompanied 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland and Atlanta as well, so expect a lot of similarities in the Jets’ new offensive scheme.

At its core, the new offense will center on deception – both as a means to disrupt the defense and to uncover information about how the opposition operates. San Francisco did this with motion at and before the snap, outside zone runs and play-action passes. Play-action passes with intermediate crossing patterns are sure to be a staple of LaFleur’s offense in New York, too.

Blended together, these three components create a matchup nightmare for defenses. Those mismatches, along with a fortified offensive line and improving cast of skill players, will help rookie QB Zach Wilson make the transition from college to pro. As USA Today’s Tyler Greenawalt put it, “At the very least, the Jets are building something that actually resembles a modern offense. That’s a step in the right direction for a franchise whose offense sat at the bottom of the league the past two seasons.”




Philadelphia Eagles

Nick Sirianni/Head Coach
Shane Steichen/Offensive Coordinator
Jonathan Gannon/Defensive Coordinator

The Eagles hired Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni to be the team’s next head coach.

Sirianni, 39, spent three seasons as an assistant with the Chiefs, five seasons with the Chargers and the past three with the Colts, working under head coach Frank Reich. He replaces Doug Pederson, previously a Super Bowl-winning coach, who was fired after going 4-11-1 in his fifth season with the team.

Despite a rotating cast at quarterback with Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers, Indianapolis fielded a top-10 offense in two of the past three seasons. Reports on Sirianni peg him as being similar to Pederson in terms of background and management style – both coaches being well-liked in the locker-room. Sirianni didn’t call plays in Indianapolis but, as noted above, he has extensive work with quarterbacks. The same goes for his new offensive coordinator Shane Steichen.

According to EJ Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer, there’s been some carryover in what Sirianni and Steichen are installing to the system Pederson ran, but the verbiage has changed. During Sirianni’s time with the Colts, Indianapolis heavily incorporated running backs in the passing game, both through screens and routes out of the backfield. Expect the Eagles to utilize playaction as well, trying to copy the success some other NFL teams have had.

New defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has worked with some great defensive minds during his NFL career.

Between Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, former Eagles defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas and Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, Gannon has had great teachers who prepared him for his current role. Expect the Eagles to run a 4-3 scheme under Gannon with pressure, intricate blitz packages, pressing corners and different combinations of similarly-deceptive pre-snap looks.







Chicago Bears

Matt Nagy/Play Caller
Head coach Matt Nagy, who called the offensive plays in a 2018 season that saw him finish as the NFL’s coach of the year, delegated the task during the 2020 season to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Now, Nagy says he’ll be back in the saddle. Via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, Nagy announced that he’ll once again call plays in 2021. The Bears, after a hot start and a dismal correction, put together enough wins to secure a wild-card berth in the NFC. Under Nagy, the Bears have made it to the playoffs twice in three seasons.



Dallas Cowboys

Dan Quinn/Defensive Coordinator
Before helming the Falcons for just over five seasons, including taking them to a Super Bowl in 2016, Quinn spent two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. During that short run, the Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning one. With Quinn now leading the defense in Dallas, the hope is that his scheme will be more familiar to the players than the one Mike Nolan attempted to install in the midst of a virtual offseason caused by a worldwide pandemic last year.




Indianapolis Colts

Marcus Brady/Offensive Coordinator.
Brought in as part of Frank Reich’s original staff after five years as an offensive coordinator for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, Brady has been the staffer primarily responsible for teaching fundamentals and technique to the quarterbacks. He also plays a key role in the offensive game-planning process, developing the week’s blocking and protection scheme. Each week, Brady studies the opposing defense’s pressure packages, gets the tape ready and spearheads the plan to deal with the opponent’s pass rush. Under Reich, the Colts spend more time than most teams on protecting the quarterback, and in the past three seasons, the Colts have finished first, 10th and tied for second in the NFL in sacks allowed. Now the rising star will replace Sirianni although Reich will continue to call plays.




Los Angeles Rams

Raheem Morris/Defensive Coordinator
Morris, 44, brings 18 years of NFL coaching experience on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball to the Rams. He most recently served as interim head coach of the Falcons for their final 11 games of the 2020 season after spending the first five as their defensive coordinator. Morris is well-acquainted with Rams head coach Sean McVay, having previously worked with him in Washington and with the Buccaneers for a combined four seasons.




Miami Dolphins

Eric Studesville/Offensive Coordinator
George Godsey/Offensive Coordinator

The Dolphins will have co-offensive coordinators this season, but which one will actually make the play calls? Head coach Brian Flores recently said that Studesville and Godsey will work in collaboration, but did not say which one of them is the primary play caller. In Flores’ first season in Miami, in 2019, he hired Chad O’Shea as his offensive coordinator. In 2020 Flores made the switch to Chan Gailey. This year marks his third offensive coordinator change in three years, but the specifics of who is actually running the Dolphins’ offense still remains unclear.




Minnesota Vikings

Klint Kubiak/Offensive Coordinator
One Kubiak is out in Minnesota. Another Kubiak takes his place. Following the retirement of Gary Kubiak, his son, Klint Kubiak, previously the team’s QB coach, will take over the Vikings’ offensive coordinator job. Signs had been pointing to Klint Kubiak’s elevation since his father retired: Head coach Mike Zimmer wanted to keep Kubiak’s system in place and will now do so with the 33-year-old OC running the show. The Vikings’ offense ranked fourth in yards, tied for fourth in yards per play, third in first downs and 11th in scoring in 2020. The younger Kubiak becomes the Vikings’ fifth OC in the past five years, however this time the changes should be limited with Minnesota keeping it within the family.




Pittsburgh Steelers

Matt Canada/Offensive Coordinator
Once again, the Steelers promoted from within to fill their offensive coordinator job, this time bumping quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to play caller. Canada will now lead an offense with a stockpile of receiving talent that has recently struggled on the ground. With Ben Roethlisberger returning in 2021, Canada keeps many of his key contributors and adds a talented newcomer at running back, Najee Harris, as he takes over. His unique offense is built around pre-snap motion and jet sweeps, among other characteristics that have become more pervasive at the pro-level in recent years. Pittsburgh hopes that giving Canada the reins will jumpstart an offense that plodded along in 2020.




Seattle Seahawks

Shane Waldron/Offensive Coordinator
As PFT’s Curtis Crabtree put it, the Seahawks raided a division rival to fill their vacancy as they hired Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron to serve as their next offensive coordinator. Waldron has spent the last four years with the Rams, the last three as passing game coordinator. He served as the team’s tight ends coach in 2016 after following head coach Sean McVay to Los Angeles from the Washington Football Team.




San Francisco 49ers

Mike McDaniel/Offensive Coordinator
DeMeco Ryans/Defensive Coordinator

With LaFleur’s departure, the Niners are promoting run game coordinator Mike McDaniel to offensive coordinator. McDaniel has been a popular candidate for coordinator jobs, and the 37-year-old has been a part of Shanahan’s staff at every stop since joining Washington together in 2011. Ryans was promoted to replace Saleh as defensive coordinator. Ryans, a former pro linebacker, has risen through the ranks since joining Shanahan’s staff in 2017 as a quality control coach.




Tennessee Titans

Todd Downing/Offensive Coordinator
Shane Bowen/Defensive Coordinator

Tennessee promoted tight ends coach Todd Downing to offensive coordinator and named outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen the team’s defensive coordinator. The hope in Tennessee is that Downing can follow in the successful footsteps of his predecessor Arthur Smith, who was also a tight ends coach before he was elevated to OC and led Tennessee to a tie for the second-best offense in the NFL in terms of yards per game and fourth-best in points per game. Previously, head coach Mike Vrabel had stated Bowen was essentially the team’s defensive coordinator in 2020 without the title. Now it’s official.