2021 NFL: Grading the coaching hires for all 7 teams

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs

Seven franchises decided to hit the refresh button for their respective head coaches this off-season. Some of these teams, such as the Los Angeles Chargers, are immediate playoff contenders, while others like the Detroit Lions are gearing up for a long rebuild.

Being a head coach in the NFL requires more than a deep knowledge of schematics. A good head coach must be able to get the best out of the different types of personalities within the squad. He should be a culture setter, manage all the egos that come with a locker room and have a strong sense of identifying coaches and players that can bring his vision to light.

Factoring in their past performances as NFL coordinators and the strength of their front office, we grade the recently hired head coaches.

1. New York Jets: Robert Saleh

Grade: B

Despite an injury crisis and a late-season stadium debacle, former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh managed to post a unit that ranked 5th in yards allowed per game and 17th in points allowed per game. He has proven that he can provide at least an average NFL performing unit even in a crisis, which should already place him above exiting Jets coach Adam Gase, whose offense in the NFL ranked 32nd in yards per game and 32nd again in points scored per game. Hopefully, the Jets should go from being absolutely terrible to at least a decent NFL franchise this season.

Saleh could follow in the footsteps of Joe Judge of the New York Giants in order to experience success as an NFL head coach. Like Judge, Saleh has inherited a questionable NFL roster that is a few off-seasons away from commanding any serious attention. Judge, however, won fans' favor early on for the culture he tried to implement and the spike in the team's effort, especially defensively. With those changes, Judge generated excitement for the future. Saleh must show equal promise in his first year as a head coach in the NFL by stabilizing a side that has been very dysfunctional over the last few years.

2. Houston Texans: David Culley

Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans
Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans

Grade: D

David Culley served as passing game coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens the past two seasons. The Ravens ranked 26th in the NFL in passing yards per game in 2019, and 32nd in 2020. They compiled 119 touchdowns to 19 interceptions across those 32 NFL regular season games.

Culley's grade is largely due to the instability of those above him. At 66 years of age by the end of next season, he is not the long-term option for the Texans but rather a stabilizer for what has been a horribly run franchise for a few years now. The Texans are hoping Culley can emulate Matt Rhule in laying down the foundations of an identity for the franchise.

With a supremely weak roster, a QB crisis and an unstable front office, it is safe to say David Culley is in the most likely position to fail among all the new head coaches. The only thing saving him from an F is the fact that so many successful head coaches from the Andy Reid tree have sung his praises.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer

Jacksonville Jaguars Training Camp
Jacksonville Jaguars Training Camp

Grade: B+

The only thing that keeps Urban Meyer from being an A+ NFL coaching hire is his odd off-season signings. He made a very questionable hire and immediately had to walk back after a public outcry. Meyer is currently trying to sell the idea of Tim Tebow as a tight end and seems a little too excited to talk to the media. But despite the slight negatives, nothing can change the fact that Urban Meyer is one of the most offensive minds in the NFL today. He has already established a culture-building identity.

Meyer built two national super powers in his last two college jobs and boasts an 85% win rate in college. The Jaguars also have one of the NFL’s most exciting and dynamic young offensive cores for Meyer to make use of.

If Meyer’s culture-implementing ways carry over to the NFL, expect this hire to mirror that of Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski took the Browns offense to another level last season and emerged late as a candidate for coach of the year.

4. Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Staley

Grade: B

The Los Angeles Chargers made the most surprising hire of the past NFL coaching cycle by picking Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their next head coach. The 38-year-old, hired off the ever-popular Sean McVay coaching staff, is considered by many NFL analysts to be a Vic Fangio disciple.

Staley was the leading man for the NFL’s finest defensive unit last year as the Rams ranked 1st in fewest points and yards allowed. The doubts over Staley are centered on how his plays will look without two of the most dominant players in their positions (Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey) covering for his mistakes and making 'wow' plays all over the field.

Coach Staley seems to be an able schemer who created a positive atmosphere for the Rams defensive unit last season when the offense had its missteps. The Chargers front office could have chosen Brian Daboll or Eric Bieniemy to oversee the growth of young superstar QB Justin Herbert. Instead, they choose to solidify their defense as they probably believe their transcendent talent will carry the offense for years to come.

In Joey Bosa and a potentially healthy Derwin James, Staley has the foundational pieces to replicate his success with the Rams. Unlike Urban Meyer, Staley is now expected to win. He should do all he can to ensure victory. Otherwise, he could find himself on the hot seat faster than anyone else in this cycle.

5. Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Sirianni

Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans
Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans

Grade: F

Unless Nick Sirianni is an Andy Reid-level genius, he isn't expected to keep this job for long. Sirianni was the preferred choice of an NFL front office that has become increasingly shaky over the last 2 off-seasons. He is viewed by many as nothing more than a yes man for the front office, that wishes to exert more control over the roster.

Serving as coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, Sirianni would have ideally been credited for their top 10 ranking in both yards and points scored. However, it was head coach Frank Reich who called plays for the team rather than Sirianni.

Sirianni’s tense press conferences hopefully shouldn't transfer to his locker room talks. He goes by the books sometimes and mirrors former Lions head coach Matt Patricia in all the wrong ways - a front office hire, a 'supposed' genius who never called plays or decided the game plan.

6. Detroit Lions: Dan Campbell

Grade: A+/ F

Dan Campbell’s process of implementing his NFL culture might not be a universal favorite, but it is a clearly visible and identifiable one. Campbell has no middle ground.

Campbell's antics have the NFL Media eating off the palm of his hand. He’ll be an easy news topic in the coming season, which acts as a double-edged sword. If he thrives, he’ll be praised more than any other coaching hire in this cycle. But failure opens up a series of very painful months where they viciously turn him into a punchline.

Campbell's proximity to genius saves him. He has spent the last 5 years as an assistant coach in the NFL, learning under Sean Payton. Payton is not only one of the NFL’s smartest play callers but also one of the best culture builders/ maintainers in the business. If Campbell fails to replicate Payton’s genius, his antics will wither away with time. But if he does well, he’ll be seen as the NFL’s answer to Mike Leach.

It is difficult to grade Campbell. He is a true boom-or-bust hire. It has all the front office symptoms of a Sirianni/Patricia hire, but Campbell may be the only one out of the three to 'actually' be a genius. If Campbell hits, the Lions get a genius play-caller who builds and maintains an odd but lovable NFL culture. If his flame fizzles out, then they’ll be the butt of everyone’s joke for years.

7. Atlanta Falcons: Arthur Smith

Tennessee Titans v Minnesota Vikings
Tennessee Titans v Minnesota Vikings

Grade: B+

Unlike many of the other offensive 'gurus' hired in this cycle, coach Arthur Smith did call his own plays. Smith’s unit finished 4th in points scored per game while finishing 3rd in offensive yards per game. Smith is an excellent dual-playcaller who can get an offense firing with either pass or run plays. While losing the towering RB Derrick Henry should hurt, Smith is gaining two hall-of-fame level offensive players in Julio Jones and Matt Ryan and another touted legendary receiver in Kyle Pitts. If he can retain even 70 to 80 percent of his run-call success while bringing the best out of Matt Ryan in the passing game, the Falcons will quickly become one of the NFL’s most feared offensive units.

Most likely to succeed/ first NFL rookie coach fired?

Urban Meyer, Arthur Smith and Brandon Staley are in a three-horse race as the likeliest to succeed. They walked into favorable situations that suited their strengths, with plenty of front office support and structure.

It is tempting to choose Dan Campbell as the rookie coach who is the likeliest to be fired. But Nick Sirianni is replacing a Super Bowl-winning coach and looks shaky from the start. Hence, it might be Sirianni who falters the earliest.

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Edited by Iman Guha