It’s not just the next Sean McVay that every NFL team in need of a head coach seems to be searching for these days. It’s the next Sean Payton and Andy Reid and Anthony Lynn, too.
Seven of the eight coaches left in the playoffs have extensive offensive backgrounds — Bill Belichick, maybe the greatest coach in NFL history, is the lone exception — and so teams are playing copycat this year as the annual hiring cycle churns.
It makes plenty of sense, even if not enough owners are willing to think for themselves these days.
If you have a young quarterback (like the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns), you want to entrust his development to a bright offensive mind. In theory, that gives him and your franchise the best chance to succeed.
And if you don’t have a young quarterback, well, you will soon, and you need to put fans in the seats in the meantime.
Quarterbacks can succeed no matter what their head coach’s background, but one fear with hiring a defensive-minded head coach is that even if he brings a top-notch offensive play caller with him, that coordinator is bound to take his system with him when leaves for a head-coaching gig, which he inevitably will if he’s any good.
So far, five teams have hired new coaches this offseason and four have been of the offensive variety.
The Green Bay Packers hired former Saginaw Valley State quarterback Matt LaFleur (an ex-McVay assistant), the Cardinals picked Kliff Kingsbury (who’s friends with McVay, according to the Cardinals’ press release), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought Bruce Arians out of retirement and the Browns reportedly are promoting offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens to head coach.
The Denver Broncos made the only defensive hire of the offseason so far, with former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and openings in Cincinnati, Miami and with the New York Jets are still playing out.
What does it mean for the Lions?
Well, last year they defied conventional wisdom and went the defensive-minded route when they hired Matt Patricia away from Belichick’s Patriots. Patricia did not have a great first year in Detroit, but it’s too early to say he was the wrong hire.
You can win any way in the NFL if you have enough talent and if players believe in their coach, and those two things, more than anything, will determine how the Lions fare in 2019.
Yes, Patricia needs to nail his offensive coordinator hire. Coaching makes more of a difference in the NFL than in any other sport, and the Lions woefully underachieved on offense this year. But if the talent and the buy-in are ultimately there, wins should be, too.
As for the new coaches, the Lions have five games against four first-year coaches on their 2019 schedule, including games against all three of the men officially hired this month.
Arians is a heck of a coach, and he’s reunited much of the staff he had during his days with as Arizona Cardinals head coach (including the respected Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator), but I’m not sure even if he can save Jameis Winston.
The Kingsbury hire has drawn mixed reviews across the league, but college scouts I know love Kingsbury and believe in his innovative genius. It doesn’t smell great that he left his job as USC offensive coordinator after a month, but that shouldn’t bearing on what he does with Josh Rosen in the desert.
And finally the LeFleur hire in Green Bay is … interesting. LeFleur learned under McVay and should open up Green Bay’s pedestrian offense, which is something the Packers desperately need with Aaron Rodgers, the greatest quarterback playing today, turning 36 later this year.
That hire strikes me as the one so far with the widest range of outcomes. Rodgers could be an MVP again and finally win a second Super Bowl, or LeFleur could flame out in supernova fashion.
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Either way, I look forward to seeing Patricia’s defense playing that offense twice next season.
A few more random thoughts as we head toward division playoff weekend:
• It seems like former Lions coach Jim Caldwell interviewed for every opening this offseason and I hope he lands another job. I don’t know that Caldwell has another Super Bowl run in him as coach. I’d bet that he doesn’t if I had to pick a side. But that doesn’t mean that Caldwell got the fairest of shakes in his two stints as head coach, either.
Caldwell went 26-22 in three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and was fired after the 2011 season, when Peyton Manning missed the year with a neck injury. The Colts made a regime change to coincide with the drafting of quarterback Andrew Luck, which was well within their right but left Caldwell out of work through really no fault of his won.
In Detroit, Caldwell was felled by another regime change despite being the winningest full-time Lions coach in the Super Bowl era (.563 percentage). He had his faults as a coach, but if not for that 1-7 start in 2015 that led the firings of Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand, he might still be employed.
• Speaking of Mayhew, I’d like to see him get another shot at being a general manager, too. You can nitpick every GM’s record in free agency and the draft, and Mayhew certainly had his misses (none bigger than Aaron Donald in 2014). But he hit on his high draft picks, nailed some late-round choices (Quandre Diggs, Theo Riddick, Tahir Whitehead), and we’ve even some of the players who’ve left Detroit (Eric Ebron, Kyle Van Noy, Laken Tomlinson) go on to play pretty good football elsewhere.
It’s not often that GMs get a second chance to run a franchise, but free from the constraints of the old CBA that bound the Lions to huge contracts for Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, I’d like to see what Mayhew could do given a chance to call the shots again.
• Finally, if you’re looking for reasons to believe in the Lions for 2019, you can start with their rookie class from this year’s just completed 6-10 season. Kerryon Johnson was a difference maker at running back before he got hurt, Da’Shawn Hand has a bright future ahead at defensive tackle, and third-round pick Tracy Walker seems to be the heir apparent to Glover Quin, though admittedly the sample size is small.
Most importantly, I still believe first-round pick Frank Ragnow is destined for huge things — and I’m not alone in thinking that. Ragnow had some rough patches, for sure; anyone who faces Aaron Donald, Akiem Hicks and the like will. But he showed real promise as an interior lineman and someone who can be a force both as a run blocker and in pass protection.
I thought this quote from T.J. Lang about Ragnow last week really summed things up.
“I think Frank’s got a great future,” Lang said. “He’s strong kid, big kid, smart kid. Great athlete. I think he’s only going to get better and I think he definitely had games this year where he flashed some All-Pro type of football. That’s not a big statement. He’s got that type of ability, so definitely got a very, very bright future in this league.”
Now, Bob Quinn just has to nail the draft again this year, where it’s no stretch to say the Lions are entering the offseason with needs at right end, cornerback, safety, wide receiver, tight end and (depending on what happens with Lang), right guard.
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