Assessing the New Head Coaches—and Why the 49ers Still Don’t Have One
Patience is the watchword in the coaching search in San Francisco, where the Niners are rebuilding from the ground up. Plus, assessing the hires in Buffalo, Denver, Jacksonville and L.A. (x2)
The MMQB's Peter King and Albert Breer discuss the Kansas City Chiefs and their chances against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And then there was one.
The second week of the coach search season has wrapped, and within it five of the six open jobs have been filled. We’ll get to all of those.
But we’ll start with the place that has been perhaps the hardest to read, and the that has the most work to do, and that’s San Francisco. By blowing up their football operation, the Niners created something of an open canvas with which they could recreate who they were as a franchise, for the first time in a dozen years.
Next year they’ll have a new GM, a new coach, probably a new quarterback, maybe a new organizational structure, and a roster that likely will bear almost no resemblance to the one that went to three consecutive NFC title games and a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh. That, in fact, is what is attractive about San Francisco to a number of candidates, Josh McDaniels among them. There’s a totally clean slate here.
Over the last two weeks the Niners have interviewed five head coaching candidates (three of whom were hired elsewhere) and seven GM candidates, with two more GM prospects and another coach interview on deck for early next week. During the process it’s become clear that there are a number of things they’d like to resurrect from their past, and others they’d rather bury. Here’s a rundown:
Resurrect: The offensive versatility that makes the team adaptable from week-to-week, which is one reason why the names of McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan have been so prominent.
Bury: The acrimony that became such a part of the team’s identity during GM Trent Baalke’s time. That’s why with McDaniels, Louis Riddick, a former personnel man and now an ESPN analyst, would be a favorite for the GM job, and why with Shanahan, Cards exec Terry McDonough would be in the picture. There are relationships there.
Resurrect: The physical edge Jim Harbaugh instilled. Over the last two years the Niners lost that identity, which was a crippling development in a division inhabited by the Seahawks and Cardinals.
Bury: The separation of coaching and scouting. Too often, Niners coaches groused that their system needs weren’t being met, and scouts complained that their voices weren’t heard. At one point Baalke didn’t want coaches at the combine. Many of his decisions were unilateral. The Niners want more inclusion between coaching and scouting.
Resurrect: The accountability Harbaugh demanded. It deteriorated to the point where players were often late to meetings, and the ping-pong and cornhole games in the locker room became a symbol of the team’s culture.
Bury: A patched-together coaching staff. Two years ago Adam Gase turned down the Niners job because he was told he couldn’t retain defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Last year Chip Kelly struggled to find his defensive coordinator. Even under Harbaugh, the play-calling was split among several coaches. Cohesion is vital on this one.
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In the end, the Niners search has taken longer because it’s not just a coach search, and because they are fitting moving pieces together. The good news? My sense is the process has helped the front-office group develop a good idea of what it wants the team to be, which should be the idea in all these searches, so long as people are open-minded.
McDaniels has intrigued them and is the presumed front-runner for the coaching spot. Shanahan has support too, if some involved can get past connecting him to his father, Mike, who interviewed for the San Francisco job in 2015 and 2016. (The younger Shanahan has worked diligently to be his own man.) And if the Niners decide to build around the GM, Green Bay’s Eliot Wolf and Brian Gutekunst are in good position.
So that’s the one that’s still open. And while we’ll keep an eye on Indy (could Peyton Manning be added?) and Houston (how will the Texans manage the Bill O’Brien/Rick Smith dynamic?), things do seem to be winding down.
Here’s a look at the ones that are done:
New coach: Sean McDermott
Previous position: Panthers defensive coordinator
Previous HC experience: none
Why: The Bills’ problems last year were disorganization and discipline, and—as teams hiring after firing often do—they went in the other direction with this hire. As a disciple of Jim Johnson, McDermott figures to run a buttoned-up program that will develop a coherent identity. Though Ron Rivera’s a defensive guy, McDermott was largely responsible for the edgy, nasty identity the Panthers built on defense the last six years around players like Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, and he’s been able to handle troubled players like Greg Hardy, and personalities like Josh Norman. Buffalo’s makeup as a team should look pretty different pretty quickly.
Questions: In the past, the biggest question teams that passed on him had involves McDermott’s ability to be a large enough personality to lead a team. He’s understated, which is obviously another example of the Bills moving away from what they had the last two years.
Testmonial: “He’s very smart and strategic with everything he does,” said one Panthers staffmate. “He’s tough and will expect a lot and get the most out of his players. Players like him because he puts them in position to be successful and is loyal to them. Not flashy or a big talker—he’s gonna put his head down and work.”
New coach: Vance Joseph
Previous position: Dolphins defensive coordinator
Previous HC experience: none
Why: Joseph said it himself—he’s going into the rare open job that isn’t “broken.” For good reason, Broncos czar John Elway likes what they’ve established in Denver, having won four AFC West titles and an AFC championship under John Fox, and a Super Bowl under Gary Kubiak. Joseph gives the Broncos a coach who could potentially be there for a long, long time, while also providing a sense of continuity in the short term for a team that’s still plenty able to win now. Joseph coached under Wade Phillips in Houston and plans to promote secondary coach Joe Woods to defensive coordinator, so an elite defense should be fine with the change. On the other side, former Broncos OC Mike McCoy is returning, bringing with him a great rep for quarterback development. Even when he was a position coach in Cincinnati, Joseph was regarded as a future head coach, so much so that Adam Gase prepared for Joseph’s departure from Miami when hiring him (by bringing in Matt Burke to eventually succeed him as coordinator). All the way around, this seems like a very good fit.
Questions: Joseph only has a single season in the bank at the coordinator level, and the Dolphins ranked 29th in total defense in that one season, then collapsed in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Usually, with coaches who haven’t been coordinators, the questions concern their ability to see the big-picture on Sundays.
Testimonial: “Great person,” said one Miami staffmate. “He’s honest with players, and has good relationships with players and coaches. Very good coaching the back end of the defense, but [has a little ways to go] as a game-day coach.”
New coach: Doug Marrone
Previous position: Jaguars assistant head coach/offensive line
Previous HC experience: Syracuse (2009-12), Bills (2013-14)
Why: Gus Bradley tried to set up a Pete Carroll-style program, and it wound up being a tough fit for a young team that couldn’t handle some of the freedoms that the former Seahawks coordinator wanted to give them. Though Marrone is an in-house hire, things are about to change. Marrone’s style is to build a Bill Parcells-type program, and his connection to Tuna is one factor that tied him to new Jags EVP Tom Coughlin. The latter’s presence here, by the way, is not to be understated. Several defensive assistants were under the impression they’d be retained if Marrone got the job, but that changed with Coughlin carrying the hammer; he’s had big input on staffing decisions. At the very least, you can see where there was a value put here on aligning the program. Head coaching experience was important to the Jacksonville search for that reason, and Marrone brings that.
Questions: Things did not end well for Marrone in Buffalo, and there are certainly fair questions to be asked about how the athletes of today respond to the old-school coaching style he employs. So the prevailing thought here is that Marrone will have to win quickly, or adjust his style, to keep his players on board.
Testimonial: “I was not a fan,” said one of his former players in Buffalo. “He didn’t treat anyone with respect. He acted like he played 10 years [in the NFL; Marrone had two seasons as a backup lineman], and always talked about how he played in the league when trying to get you to do stuff his way.”
Los Angeles Chargers
New coach: Anthony Lynn
Previous position: Bills offensive coordinator/assistant HC
Previous HC experience: Bills interim coach (Weeks 16/17)
Why: The Chargers’ focus at the outset was less on hiring a coordinator—a play-calling head coach who would take care of one side of the ball—and more on finding a leader who would set the tone for a program. And that’s what Lynn is. Last year, in the mess of Buffalo’s season, Lynn was a steadying force, and the offense performed to the end, providing a stark contrast to the disorganization that was apparent on defense and in the organization’s power structure. Lynn is more Bill Parcells (whom he worked under in Dallas) than he is Rex Ryan (whom he worked for in New York and Buffalo), and everyone in the Chargers’ building will feel that quickly. And because he’s been around the block, his staff should be strong, with Ken Whisenhunt likely staying on as offensive coordinator and Gus Bradley a candidate to run the defense.
Questions: The Chargers are stocked with young talent (Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Denzel Perryman, Hunter Henry, Jason Verrett), so player development will be key here, which is why Lynn’s lack of extensive coordinator experience (14 games) will come up.
Testimonial: “I think A-Lynn will be a great head coach,” said one Bills player. “Detail-oriented, situationally sound, doesn’t talk to hear his own voice, disciplinarian, very smart guy. He studies the league—he studies everything! Turnovers will be a major point of emphasis for [the Chargers].”
Los Angeles Rams
New coach: Sean McVay
Previous position: Redskins offensive coordinator
Previous HC experience: none
Why: The Rams’ list at the outset was completely comprised of NFL assistants for a reason—the team’s idea was to worry less about hiring guy who’s a big deal now than it was to find the next big thing. And that’s why McVay was a logical candidate from the beginning, his age (he turns 31 later this month and is the youngest head coach in NFL history) be damned. Here’s the bottom line: Had McVay spent a fourth year as Washington’s offensive coordinator and repeated the success he had the last two seasons, he’d have been the belle of the 2018 coaching-carousel ball. So the Rams jumped a year early, which is smart, because they won’t have an opening next year, and the makeup of the team is such that McVay can grow into the job. Good luck finding someone who’s worked for McVay who thinks this is anything but a grand slam hire. Bottom line—this is good for the Rams, it’s good for Jared Goff, and everyone will see why this makes sense when they see the energy McVay will infuse here. He has the same forward-thinking, program-building strengths that P.J. Fleck and Tom Herman have brought to the college game, and that’s in addition to being a prodigy of offensive football.
Questions: OK, youth. Questions with young coaches usually involve their ability to reel a team back in when the you-know-what hits the fan, and you never really know how a coach will handle that until he’s in it. But McVay’s leadership style figures to be different, and he plans to surround himself with an experienced staff.
Testimonial: “He’s really smart—great with the X’s and O’s and a great communicator,” said one Redskins staffer. “He’s wise beyond his years. He’ll do great.”
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