Ranking all First Year Head Coaches so far

This past offseason, 5 NFL teams hired new head coaches to lead their team for this season. Through 8 weeks, only one of these new NFL head coaches has a winning record. However, to see the bigger picture, it is important to look outside the realm of wins and losses for these first year head coaches. Other factors like team culture, improved production in certain areas, and getting the most out of all the talent on the team should be taken into consideration when evaluating these head coaches. Without further ado, let’s get into the rankings.

  1. Kevin Stefanski: Cleveland Browns (5-3). It is fair to say that the Cleveland Browns missed on both Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens before hiring Stefanski. Those 2 head coaches had a combined record of 9-36-1. Thus, it was imperative that owner Jimmy Haslam struck gold with his new hiring. So far, the returns have been promising for. Last year, the Browns had the 22nd worst EPA/play at -0.027 and QB Baker Mayfield had a EPA/play + CPOE composite score of 0.049 which ranked 25/42 eligible passers. While in Minnesota, Stefanski’s offense was built on wide zone runs with Dalvin Cook which later opened up play action throws for Kirk Cousins either to Adam Theilen underneath, or Stefon Diggs overtop. If you look at the personnel Stefanski has in Cleveland when fully healthy, it is very similar to what he had in Minnesota. Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook are both very good runners of the football, Theilen and Jarvis Landry man the slot, and Diggs and Odell are both explosive receivers on the outside with big play ability. So how has Stefanski’s offense fared so far this year? Taking a look at the graph, in non-garbage time play, the Browns have actually been a really good offense. They have the 4th best EPA/rush at 0.074, and the 6th best EPA/dropback at 0.257. Stefanski has done really well in playing to this offense’s strength which is running the ball behind a very good run-blocking offensive line. Cleveland’s offensive line ranks 4th in PFF’s run blocking grades as a unit. The interior of Cleveland’s offensive line has been on another level when healthy this year. Wyatt Teller is PFF’s highest graded offensive lineman and both Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter rank inside the top 6 for overall blocking grade. Stefanski’s hiring has also helped Baker Mayfield. Mayfield’s EPA + CPOE composite has improved to 0.108 this year, up from the 0.049 from last year. However, Mayfield’s playmaking ability will be tested these next few games especially with Odell Beckham out for the year and Austin Hooper missing games due to appendicitis. Hopefully Michigan’s own Donovan Peoples-Jones can step up like he did in Week 7 vs the Bengals and produce for Mayfield. Taking a look at the defense, the Browns are in the middle of the pack in terms of EPA/Play allowed. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods heads the defense for the Browns, and they have been average, which is expected given the pieces they have. Myles Garrett has been a DPOY candidate with 38 pressures, 9 sacks, 4 forced fumbles but talent is lacking outside of players like Denzel Ward (75.1 PFF coverage grade) since no other player that has played 300 snaps has a PFF grade over 70.0. This Browns defense has also given up 30 points in 5 of its 8 games. 

Ultimately, the Browns have played solid and Stefanski should get credit for how this offense has performed so far. However, the combined record of the Browns opponents they’ve beaten is 11-18-1. They’ve also gotten shutdown by the Ravens and Steelers, both of whom are division rivals. They lost those games by a combined 63 points. It will be exciting to see if the Browns can snap their playoff drought and get healthy again, but Cleveland football is finally back for the time being.

  1. Matt Rhule: Carolina Panthers (3-5). To me, the signing of Matt Rhule to me was one of the best moves of the offseason. Let’s look at his track record before getting hired by Carolina:
TeamFirst YearFinal Year
Temple2-1010-3
Baylor1-1011-3
Carolina3-5*?

He knows how to build a culture of playing hard every play and it’s shown despite the lack of talent and experience on both sides of the football. Almost every major football site had the Panthers ranked in the bottom 8 of their power rankings before the season started. But, at one point, the Panthers were 3-2 and tied for first place in the NFC South. While they have lost 3 in a row, there is reason for optimism. Let’s start with the offense. On top of hiring Rhule, the Panthers added Joe Brady as their offensive coordinator. Last year, Brady implemented one of the best passing attacks in college football history at LSU.

The Panthers are in the bottom-half for EPA/Play on offense ranking 22nd. However, in a shortened offseason, with a new HC and OC, and a new QB, there were going to be some growing pains. Bridgewater doesn’t possess the same type of arm talent that Burrow has either, so the offense needed to be more tailored to Bridgewater’s conservative play style. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Bridgewater has an average intended air yards of 7 which ranks near the bottom of all eligible passers this year. The offense found a quiet star this past offseason in Robby Anderson as he is added to the list of players that succeed once leaving Adam Gase. Anderson is 3rd in receiving yards at 688, 3rd in yards per route run from the slot, and is 2nd in YAC. He has really transformed from solely being used as an outside burner, to someone who can play inside and run routes underneath and gain YAC. DJ Moore has also had a nice season ranking 7th in receiving yards and 3rd in deep passing yards with 272. The offensive line could use some work as they currently have the 23rd best offensive line unit in the league per PFF. Overall, the offense has been static in some areas, especially the run game (31st in EPA/Rush), but as Joe Brady continues to grow with Bridgewater and CMC finally returning, the offense looks bright for the future.

The defense has been below average, but again, this is a very young defense. This past draft, the Panthers used all 7 picks on defense, showing their commitment to that side of the ball. The defense plays hard, scrappy, and mean, and have done well given their lack of talent on that side of the ball. With their best player Kawann Short out for the year, it will be good to see first round pick Derrick Brown’s development as both a run stuffer and pass rusher. There are some positives from this group though especially with last year’s first round pick Brian Burns. He has really improved as a speed edge rusher, racking up 25 pressures so far this year and has amassed a 90.6 pass rushing grade by PFF. He does need to work on his run defense (63.4 PFF rush defense grade), but since he is pretty light for an edge rusher (250 pounds), it’s something that he will get better at with experience. Another important building block is rookie Jeremy Chinn. I remember when all Panthers fans were mad that GM Marty Hurney didn’t select Isaiah Simmons at 7 overall. Simmons was regarded as the ultimate chess piece by draft scouts. This is Jeremy Chinn’s snaps per position so far this year. As you can see, he is being used almost everywhere on the field. He is everything Isaiah Simmons was supposed to be. Simmons played 83 total defensive snaps this year. Chinn should continue to get better with more playing time and being able to diversify himself to play different positions will only make him a better player in the future.

Rhule might not have a great first year, but the talent surrounding his team is not as good as other teams in his conference. Ultimately, he is up here for his ability to lead and motivate a team to play hard and create a culture that starts with the young players that should reward him with wins in future years.

  1. Ron Rivera: Washington Football Team (2-5). Before evaluating Rivera, I have to give my props to him for coaching this team on top of getting cancer treatment the entire offseason and even during the season. Prayers that he makes it out healthy and well enough to coach however long he wants. Now regarding his coaching, the team is pretty much where I expected it to be coming into the year. There was no real firepower anywhere on offense outside of McLaurin. However, Rivera’s biggest decision that he made was to bench last year’s first round pick Dwayne Haskins for Kyle Allen. This really doesn’t make sense for the organization for the long run. Haskins was considered to have one of the best arm talents in last year’s draft, but his leash has been very short, especially with Rivera at the helm. Haskins’s PFF passing grade of 48.0 ranks 2nd to last out of all quarterbacks that have started at least 2 games. While I don’t agree with the decision, I understand why Rivera made it. On top of that, Haskins has had some maturity concerns this year which could’ve played a part that led to his benching. But you really shouldn’t bench a second year QB that you invested a first round pick in, given that he’s only had 1 good WR/TE to throw to (McLaurin), and hasn’t had a good offensive line especially with Trent Williams being out last year and Brandon Schereff being injured this year. Overall, the WFT has not been good on offense. They have the 29th best EPA/Play this year. The positives? Not too much. The running game has at least been above-average as rookie Antonio Gibson has 22 tackles broken on rushes on only 103 carries. So pretty much, he is breaking a tackle on 20% of his carries which ranks in the top 10 in the NFL this season. “Scary” Terry McLaurin has been very consistent this year regardless of who throws him the ball. He’s done his work from both the outside and the slot, and he’s averaging 2.69 yards/route run from the slot this year which ranks 5th in the league. No other WR/TE has more than 208 yards so McLaurin has done very well carrying the load. The offensive line has ranked near the middle of the pack per PFF’s blocking grades. Now Rivera is more of a defensive minded head coach than offense. His defense ranks 22nd in EPA/Play allowed. The best part of this defense comes from its star studded defensive line. Led by 2nd overall pick Chase Young (PFF’s highest graded defensive rookie), the defensive line has averaged 3.1 sacks per game this year. They have the ability to start 4 first round picks (Young, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat). When Matt Ioannidis (76.7 pass rush grade in 2019 + 55 pressures and 8 sacks) returns to that interior defensive line, they will have really good depth and will be a scary sight for opposing offensive lines. The secondary lost star CB Quinton Dunbar last offseason, but signing Kendall Fuller has helped them get past that as he currently has the lowest passer rating when targeted this year (9.3), and has 4 INT on the year. The organization has done a good job in building this defense from the trenches in the draft, to using free agency to build the secondary. The last piece this team needs is a star LB like Rivera had with Kuechly in Carolina. Micah Parsons from Penn State could be a name to watch this upcoming draft. 

Overall, Rivera has done what he can with what he has. Looking at their schedule, they are 2-1 in the division, with the sole loss coming to the Giants. How Rivera handles the Haskins situation will be telling for how much control he has on this team and organization, but this season should be about developing that young defense, as well as finding pieces to complement McLaurin and Gibson. 

  1. Joe Judge: New York Giants (1-7) This hire was an interesting one for the Giants given how other members of the Belichick tree have turned out. The combined record of all NFL coaches who were hired after working with Bill Belichick this year is 8-18 including Judge. Since Judge was a special teams coach before getting hired by the Giants, he also hired Jason Garrett (offensive minded head coach from the Cowboys), and Patrick Graham (defensive coordinator for Dolphins under Brian Flores) to run both sides of the ball. Yes the win-loss record isn’t pretty. But like I said, evaluating a first year head coach is more than the number of wins. Are there clear signs of improvement? Yes, there is. Given Judge’s special teams pedigree, the Giants have improved their special teams DVOA from 17th last year to 6th so far this season through 8 games.
  2. To be straightforward, this offense is not pretty. 31st in EPA/Play, 30th in EPA/Dropback, 28th in EPA/Rush. Saquon Barkley did get hurt early on, but running backs are replaceable and Giants did make the move to sign veteran Devonta Freeman. As with most offenses, it all starts with the play up front. The Giants have graded out to be the worst offensive line unit so far in the NFL by PFF. Andrew Thomas has allowed 40 pressures, 11 more than the next nearest offensive lineman. Thomas and RT Cameron Fleming have combined to allow 64 combined pressures which is the most of any tackle duo in the league. Daniel Jones ranks 29th in EPA/Play + CPOE Composite so far this year. Jones has also been pressured on 136 of his dropbacks this year, the most in the league. Even though his offensive line is horrible, Jones needs to improve his decision making. He has thrown 9 picks and fumbled 5 times this year. Judge is not really known for his offensive prowess, but signing Jason Garrett was instrumental in trying to develop Daniel Jones to be the franchise QB after his work with Dak Prescott and Tony Romo. I think he needs another year of evaluation like Darnold has had for the Giants to truly assess if he’s the right guy for the job. The Giants defense have ranked 18th in EPA/Play allowed. The run defense spearheaded by Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and Dalvin Tomlinson have been better than the pass defense. Losing Deandre Baker due to his arrest was another loss for the Giants as that second outside corner role has been a liability. They have tried to replace Baker with Ryan Lewis and Darnay Holmes who both rank 109 and 110 out of 116 corners by PFF respectively.

Overall, Judge needs to make sure this team is constantly improving, with an emphasis on the offense and the development of Daniel Jones. It’s hard to evaluate him with how the roster is right now, but there are foundational pieces on both sides that Judge can work with, and should continue to build around in the coming years. He has a shot to win in the weak NFC East if everything goes right and the Giants stay relatively healthy.

  1. Mike McCarthy: Dallas Cowboys (2-6). The question is how do we evaluate McCarthy? The Cowboys are currently third in the league with 11 players on IR for a combined salary cap of $50,390,140 per Spotrac. Most of that comes from Dak’s franchise tag salary but having that many players on IR hurts. McCarthy is currently looking at Cooper Rush and Garrett Gilbert as his starting QB against the Steelers. 4 of his starting offensive lineman are hurt. Well, like I’ve said, to evaluate a head coach, we need to look beyond the scope of wins and losses.

The Cowboys last year with Dak were 3rd in EPA/Play. Through the first 5 weeks, the Cowboys were 17th in EPA/Play. Yes, they had the crazy comeback vs Atlanta in week 2, but the offense was stagnant for most of the game. The reason why Dak had so many passing yards was because the Cowboys were down by 3 or more possessions in most of their games so they were always throwing against defenses playing prevent defense. When considering a 10%-90% win probability, the Cowboys fall to the 23rd ranked team in EPA/Play. Simply put, the offense has not been good. 

The defense hasn’t been any better. They currently rank 29th in EPA/Play allowed. Mike Nolan was a terrible hire. His eyes have been better than his defensive play calling. His defense has not been prepared to go against opposing offenses, and the Cowboys have dropped from 0.021 EPA/Play allowed to 0.144 EPA/Play allowed.

Ultimately, the reason why McCarthy is last is because I believe he has lost the locker room. His staff has been criticized, he has called out his players for not defending Dalton, and he has lost by double digits points in his last 4 losses including getting blown out on Monday Night Football by the Cardinals. I truly believe he will be the only one-and-done coach this year and Mike Nolan will join him. The injuries have hit hard but he really hasn’t gained the respect of the locker room, and the same reasons why Green Bay fired him are why he will be out of Dallas this season.