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Finding diamonds in the rough

Risk-taking pays off in NFL coaching hires

The Los Angeles Rams are reaping the rewards of the gamble they took by hiring young Sean McVay last year.
The Los Angeles Rams are reaping the rewards of the gamble they took by hiring young Sean McVay last year.

Another season, another Black Monday come and gone. As NFL teams scramble to fill vacancies for head coaches, general managers and coordinators, the face of the copycat league is showing clearer and clearer. 

This season, the playoffs were filled with new faces on both sides: rookie head coaches Sean McVay and Sean McDermott led their teams to the playoffs, and second-year coaches like Doug Pederson and Doug Marrone raised their rosters’ standard of play tremendously from year one to two. 

McVay managed to turn a moribund offense under Jeff Fisher into a top-10 unit, McDermott brought the Bills to their first playoff appearance this millenium, Pederson’s Eagles would have been the Super Bowl frontrunners save for an injury to transcendent quarterback Carson Wentz, and Marrone, the only man on this list to have had another NFL head coaching position, crafted the league’s best defense and managed to marginalize quarterback play enough in his offense to get Blake Bortles a playoff win. 

The success of these fresh, mostly young, hires has led to new names being thrown around the coaching carousel. Although the Raiders already threw 10 years and 100 million dollars at Jon Gruden, a move that warrants healthy skepticism, franchises with head coaching vacancies like Indianapolis, Detroit, Arizona and the New York Giants all have a serious incentive to pursue candidates like McVay and McDermott: coordinators who significantly raised a team’s standard of play on one side of the ball for multiple years. 

Although some brilliant coordinators are not meant to be head coaches, like Wade Phillips, Dick LeBeau or even Rex Ryan, rarely is it that the veteran coaching retread works out, and rarer still is a coordinator previously with the Patriots experiencing any success as a head coach. For as excellent as Jim Schwartz has been running the Eagles’ defense this year, his up-and-down tenure with a Detroit team that featured Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh should not be forgotten. Underachieving with that sort of personnel bodes poorly.

The same can be said for Matt Patricia’s bottom-dwelling defenses with the Patriots, units that have only ever excelled with superior players—like the 2014-15 team featuring Darrelle Revis—or due to the intervention of defensive genius Bill Belichick. Patricia, the leading candidate for the Lions job, would constitute a tepid hire. 

The lone exception to the retreads is Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who would make for a solid hire for Indianapolis, which has established quarterback play from Andrew Luck. Shurmur, whose previous head coaching experience was in Cleveland where failure cannot be isolated to a coach alone, has elevated the play of Sam Bradford and Case Keenum in successive years and pieced together a playoff-ready offense from disparate parts on the line and skill positions, a number of elements that look eerily similar to what the Colts have. 

Teams have to be willing to take some risks and not hire familiar faces like John Fox and Jeff Fisher, whose jobs will be doomed from the word go. Throw money at Stanford’s David Shaw or Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, whose programs are sufficiently small that they could be tempted to make a move to the pro game. Take a long, hard look at Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippo, who spearheaded Wentz’s development into an MVP candidate. 

Although the league is a copycat league in the sense that every team with a vacancy is looking for their McVay, there is still room to find that diamond-in-the-rough candidate within the framework of a new, relatively young NFL coach, provided teams do their due diligence. 


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