What’s Gone Right and What’s Gone Wrong for the NFL’s Rookie Head Coaches?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Packers’ Matt LaFleur has three wins. The seven other first-year coaches have combined for two. It will be a long season for most of these teams, but many have shown flashes of success with a new boss on sidelines.

Change doesn’t always come quickly in the NFL, and for the eight teams hoping that new head coach hires during the offseason would spark instant turnarounds, well … seven are disappointed thus far. Among the league’s first-year head coaches, the Packers’ Matt LaFleur is presently lapping the field in early returns with more wins (three) in the first three weeks than all of the others combined: Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians, Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury, Denver’s Vic Fangio, Cleveland’s Freddie Kitchens, Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, the Jets’ Adam Gase, and Miami’s Brian Flores have gone a collective 2-18-1.

Of course, apart from the win-loss standings, nothing is ever completely black and white in this league. The Packers are far from a perfect squad and the Bucs, Cardinals, Broncos, Browns, Bengals, and Jets have all mixed in a few positive―or at least somewhat promising―developments. The Dolphins haven’t, but I’ll get to them. With three weeks of action now in the books, let’s recap what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong for each of the eight first-year head coaches.

Matt LaFleur, Packers (3-0)

What’s Gone Right

LaFleur, 39, was hired principally to reenergize Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s listless offense, but it’s the Packers’ defense that gets a good chunk of the credit for the team’s 3-0 record (their best start since 2015). GM Brian Gutekunst and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have transformed a bottom-five unit from last year (per Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA) into what looks like a top-five group this season.

The team’s offseason investments in edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, along with first-round pick Rashan Gary, have boosted the pass rush, which has posted a league-best 43.9 percent pressure rate this season. And the additions of safeties Adrian Amos (free agency) and Darnell Savage Jr. (first round) are a boon for the team’s back-end coverage, which has surrendered a paltry 63.1 opponent passer rating (second behind the Patriots). The Packers lead the league in takeaways (eight), have given up just 11.7 points per game (also second only to New England), and rank third in DVOA. That defensive dominance has given the team one strong leg to stand on while the offense irons out some of its issues.

What’s Gone Wrong

LaFleur’s offense remains a work in progress. The Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay disciple is still working to revolutionize and modernize Green Bay’s scheme: Through three weeks, the Packers rank 20th in offensive DVOA, are tied for 23rd in points (19.3 per game), are 28th in yards per play (4.8), and are 28th in first downs (49). The team’s rushing attack is middling at best and ranked 24th in yards (268) and tied for 26th in yards per rush (3.4). Much to the chagrin of fans and fantasy players around the world, LaFleur has followed in his predecessor’s frustrating footsteps by employing a committee approach at the running back position with the electric Aaron Jones and less-than-electric Jamaal Williams.

More importantly, though, LaFleur is still working to get onto the same page as his two-time MVP quarterback. The duo has bickered on the sidelines at times, and while there have been a few flashes of brilliance here and there, Rodgers has gotten off to a sluggish start. The Packers QB ranks 23rd in passing yards (647), is tied for 17th in touchdowns (four), tied for 24th in completion rate (61.3 percent), ranks 13th in passer rating (96.5), tied for 21st in yards per attempt (7.0), and ranks 17th in touchdown rate (4.3 percent, tied with Philip Rivers and Marcus Mariota). Superstar receiver Davante Adams hasn’t been as involved in the passing game as expected (just 15 catches for 198 yards and zero touchdowns) and the team is still waiting for second and third options to consistently step up. Second-year pro Marquez Valdes-Scantling looked great last week (six receptions, 99 yards, and one touchdown) but Geronimo Allison has struggled and Jimmy Graham was all but invisible in his past two outings.

The offense could trend in the right direction, though, thanks in part to the improved play from the offensive line. After giving up seven hits and five sacks to the Bears in Week 1 and nine hits and two sacks to the Vikings in Week 2, Green Bay kept Rodgers astoundingly clean last Sunday and allowed just one hit and no sacks. That should benefit every player as the offense works to adopt LaFleur’s schemes.

Freddie Kitchens, Browns (1-2)

What’s Gone Right

The Browns have battled through injuries to the secondary yet managed to play well defensively through three games. That group ranks eighth in defensive DVOA, thanks in part to its strong pass-rush group: Led by star rusher Myles Garrett (six sacks and eight quarterback hits), Cleveland ranks sixth in pressure rate this year (32.7) and is tied for sixth with 10 team sacks. Kitchens’s appointment of Steve Wilks as the defensive coordinator looks like a good decision: Wilks’s group has consistently given the team’s struggling offense chances to win games.

What’s Gone Wrong

The Browns offense, on the other hand, hasn’t kept its part of the bargain. That group, which came into the season with plenty of fanfare, has been out of sorts. This version of the Kitchens offense looks nothing like the creative unit that kept Baker Mayfield clean and defenses off-balance so well down the stretch last season. It features less deception, more slower developing plays; and has become boring and predictable, even with the addition of superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The Browns ran variations of the wishbone offense last year just for fun; now they’re barely using pre-snap motion.

As a result, Mayfield appears to have taken a step back in his development. From Week 9 forward last year (after Kitchens took over play-calling duties), he threw 19 touchdowns (tied for fourth most) and eight picks and compiled a 106.2 passer rating (sixth). He took just five sacks in that stretch, which was best among quarterbacks who started every game, in large part because Kitchens focused on getting the ball out of Mayfield’s hands quickly. That hasn’t been the case this season: The team’s offensive line hasn’t been perfect, but it does rank third in ESPN’s pass-block win rate (a metric that measures an offensive line’s success rate in holding blocks for 2.5 seconds). This suggests that the team’s issues with pressure so far are more about the quarterback holding the ball for too long—Mayfield’s 3.03 seconds to throw is the third longest in the league—than the actual blocking up front.

That lack of a schematic quick game is compounded by Mayfield’s struggles when pressured. From Week 9 on last year, Mayfield ranked seventh in passer rating under pressure (86.0) per Pro Football Focus, and tossed five touchdowns and four interceptions while taking just five sacks. Through three games this season, he’s 33rd out of 37 qualifiers in passer rating under pressure (28.3), with zero touchdowns, two picks, and 11 sacks. He’s been indecisive and skittish in the pocket, and too often looks to escape and make an off-balance throw into traffic. The team could unlock the passing game by getting back to the foundation it relied on last season: RPO plays, screen passes, and dump-offs that get the ball out quickly and keep defenses honest.

Kitchens has also come under fire for the team’s explosion in penalties and his appalling lack of overall game management. Those struggles are best exemplified by a perplexing draw play Kitchens called on a crucial fourth-and-9 situation near midfield in the fourth-quarter of a four-point game last Sunday. The play picked up two yards. Kitchens admitted that his inexperience as a play-caller has been an issue, and while it’d be understandable that he’s struggling to balance play-calling duties with everything else that comes with being the head coach, he’s refused to give up those duties to offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Whether Kitchens keeps play-calling responsibilities or not, he’s got to fix his offense, and quickly. That starts with speeding up the tempo of play, getting Beckham more involved, and getting Baker back into a rhythm as a passer.

Bruce Arians, Buccaneers (1-2)

What’s Gone Right

I’m sensing a pattern: Arians is the third offensive-minded head coach on this list whose defense has been the main bright spot of the team’s start this season. That group, led by free-agent addition Shaq Barrett (who has amassed a league-best 8.0 sacks) ranks seventh in defensive DVOA through three weeks (it ranked dead last in 2018) despite the tough outing against the Giants and Daniel Jones.

Offensively, the team has been a roller-coaster ride, as Jameis Winston-quarterbacked teams tend to be. There have been glimpses of Arians’s vertical, aggressive offense through three weeks, and receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans may become one of the most talented receiver duos in the league. Even former second-round running back Ronald Jones, who was a massive flop as a rookie, has impressed in spurts.

What’s Gone Wrong

Arians was hired ostensibly to harness Winston’s good traits (a big arm, an aggressive nature, and an ability to throw from the pocket) and eliminate the turnover-prone hero-ball attributes that plague the quarterback. The results thus far have been up and down: Winston has made some exceptional throws, as he did in the team’s 28-point explosion in the first half of last week’s 32-31 loss to the Giants. But the contract-year quarterback still shows the propensity to toss up gimme interceptions. He has completed 60 percent of his passes for 782 yards with five touchdowns and four picks; his 4.1 percent interception rate and 9.3 percent sack rate thus far would both be a career highs over a full season, and his 85.5 passer rating would be a three-year low. Arians and the Bucs have gotten, for all intents and purposes, the same old Winston—or worse.

Arians’s game management has been suspect as well. In the team’s loss last week, Winston hit Mike Evans on a 44-yard bomb to set the Buccaneers up for what should’ve been the game-winning chip-shot field goal from the 9-yard line with 13 seconds to go. Instead, Arians took a delay of game, apparently on purpose, then had Winston back up another two yards and kneel to center the ball, setting up a 34-yard attempt. Kicker Matt Gay missed, and those extra seven yards may have been the difference. There’s still plenty of time to turn things around, but this team feels an awful lot like the Buccaneers teams of the past five years.

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals (0-2-1)

What’s Gone Right

Kingsbury’s innovative four-wide Air Raid offense appeared to be trending in the right direction in the team’s opening week tie to the Lions and then again in the team’s Week 2 loss to the Ravens. Through two weeks, Kyler Murray became the first player in NFL history with 25-plus completions in each of his first two games and just the second quarterback in NFL history with 300-plus passing yards in each of his first two career games. He’d started developing chemistry with Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk and found ways to get David Johnson involved. The team wasn’t winning, but it felt like that offensive group was gaining some momentum.

What’s Gone Wrong

That progress came to a screeching halt in the team’s 38-20 Week 3 loss to the Panthers. Murray completed 30 of 43 passes with two touchdowns and two picks—but those 43 throws produced just 173 yards, a pathetic 4.0 yard per attempt average. His pass chart does a good job of illustrating how that happened:

 Next Gen Stats

Murray made almost no attempt to attack downfield, and instead relied almost entirely on passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage. A big reason for that is the team’s awful offensive line, which has hamstrung the offense and struggled to give Murray a pocket. The rookie quarterback took eight sacks in the game, which pushed his season total to 16 (second worst). It was ugly.

Of course, it was easy to expect these types of ups and downs. The Cardinals have, save for Fitzgerald, one of the youngest offensive skill-position groups in the league and that unit will take some time to build chemistry. The team’s defense doesn’t do Murray any favors either: That injury-plagued group has given up 29.3 points per game (fourth worst) and ranks 22nd in defensive DVOA. Arizona is rebuilding on both sides of the ball, and simply doesn’t look to have the depth or experience to contend in 2019. The jury is likely to remain out on Kingsbury until the team can add some talent, but for a supposedly aggressive, forward-thinking head coaching hire, he’s been shockingly conservative in fourth-down red zone situations, choosing to kick field goals instead of trying for touchdowns. Hopefully that changes.

Vic Fangio, Broncos (0-3)

What’s Gone Right

It’s probably best to focus on a few individuals in this section. Veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders has been outstanding just nine months removed from a torn Achilles, and has provided a boost (18 catches, 194 yards, and two touchdowns) to the team’s otherwise young pass-catching corps. Second-year pro Courtland Sutton looks like a future star, and has caught 16 passes for 247 yards. The team also has a dynamic running back duo in Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Along with tight end Noah Fant, Denver appears to have a talented and athletic skill-position nucleus to build around.

What’s Gone Wrong

After coaching the most dominant defense in football last year in Chicago, Fangio was brought in to unleash the Broncos’ fearsome pass-rushing front and help turn around a team that finished 6-10 in 2018. Instead, Denver is off to its worst start since 1999.

The team’s underwhelming defensive performance is one of the main culprits. Denver does rank ninth in pressure rate (28.9 percent), but the pass-rush unit is just not getting home. Despite deploying superstar Von Miller and up-and-coming stud Bradley Chubb on the edges, the Broncos have exactly zero sacks and zero turnovers on the year (the first team since the league started tracking sacks in 1982 to go three consecutive games without either) and have produced a sack or QB hit on a paltry 3.6 percent of their opponents’ dropbacks, per The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia. That ranks dead last in the league (no other team is below 11 percent) and comes in far off last year’s rate (21.7 percent). It certainly doesn’t help that Barrett, a rotational pass rusher the team let leave in free agency, has eight sacks for Tampa Bay.

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what the hell is going on with that group. For starters, Denver’s opponents know that it has a strong pass-rush group and those teams have chosen to deploy quick-passing schemes to mitigate the Broncos’ strength. Denver has also chosen not to blitz very much and instead rely on its front four to get home. That obviously has not worked. Look for that strategy to change moving forward. The team needs to get better play from its secondary, too, but the pass-rush and pass-coverage units are inextricably linked. If Denver can start making quarterbacks more uncomfortable, the secondary is bound to start making more plays.

Denver’s offense hasn’t been a whole lot more impressive. The team has struggled to get going early in games, with just 13 first-half points on the year, and has difficulty keeping quarterback Joe Flacco upright. The veteran was sacked a career-high six times in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. Protection is an issue, and the team’s lack of vision at the quarterback position overall remains a problem. The trade GM John Elway made for Flacco this offseason just keeps looking worse and worse; the former Raven simply looks disinterested and, much like we saw with Eli Manning in the Giants offense, offers zero escapability that could help mitigate the team’s issues on the offensive line. It’s not like he’s slicing and dicing from the pocket, either: Flacco has completed 76 of 110 passes for 773 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His two touchdown passes and 1.8 percent touchdown rate both rank dead last among quarterbacks who have started all three games this season. His 87.4 passer rating ranks 18th. Flacco is the same guy we’ve seen the past few years, and that doesn’t bode well.

Zac Taylor, Bengals (0-3)

What’s Gone Right

Taylor was hired to revitalize a sluggish offense and at times, he’s succeeded. The pace of Cincy’s passing game has improved; Taylor has introduced far more creativity to the scheme, and the team appears to be embracing an analytically driven, pass-first mentality. Andy Dalton is second in the NFL in passing yards, John Ross has a chance to remove the bust label from his name, and the team has produced 14 pass plays of 20-plus yards (fourth most leaguewide).

The defense has shown signs of life as well, particularly its pass-rushing group, which ranks third in the league in pressure rate (36.6 percent). It hasn’t been a smooth start, exactly, for the Bengals, but they’re a few bad calls and a few key mistakes away from being 2-1. The Bengals probably should’ve beaten the Seahawks in Week 1; they outgained Seattle 429 yards to 233 yards. And they had a chance to beat the Bills last week: The offense drove deep into Bills territory with a chance to score a touchdown and win the game, but Dalton threw a pick from the Buffalo 28-yard line with 20 seconds left.

What’s Gone Wrong

Cincinnati’s new-look offense is still in its infancy. The team is plagued by poor offensive-line play, sloppy ball security, unreliable hands (Ross leads the NFL in drops), bad situational football, and the inability to finish. The rash of injuries (receiver A.J. Green, running back Joe Mixon, and tackles Jonah Williams and Cordy Glenn) sure doesn’t help, either. Taylor inherited a mediocre-at-best roster, is working with a middling quarterback, and has shown signs of inexperience on the sideline.

Adam Gase, Jets (0-3)

What’s Gone Right

Uh … OK, let’s dig deep here. Rookie linebacker Blake Cashman has been a nice addition to the defense and gives the team a much-needed playmaker. Free-agent receiver Jamison Crowder looks like he’ll be a great security net underneath for second-year quarterback Sam Darnold, and running back Le’Veon Bell appears to have not skipped a beat when it comes to versatility and elusiveness.

What’s Gone Wrong

The Jets are lucky the Dolphins exist, or they’d have the dubious distinction of being the biggest dumpster-fire team in the league. Darnold has mono, and his absence has absolutely crippled the team’s already bad offense. Gase was brought in ostensibly because of his perceived ability to bring the team’s offense back to life. Fresh off a 105-yard performance against the Patriots, New York now ranks second to last in points (11.0 per game), last in yards (196.7 per game), last in yards per play (3.4), and last in first downs (12 per game).

Oh, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is still deploying his safety 20-plus yards off the line of scrimmage to disastrous effect.

Williams’s unit has surrendered 18 plays of 20-plus yards, including a way-too-easy jailbreak touchdown by Beckham in Week 2. New York, with its negative-37 point differential (31st), already looks primed for another coaching change at the end of the year … or sooner.

Brian Flores, Dolphins (0-3)

What’s Gone Right

Call it what you want—the #Fishtank, the #TankForTua, whatever—the Dolphins are very clearly punting the season with a long-term vision for rebuilding from the ground up. That process was never likely to go smoothly and there are very few positives to take from a team with a negative-117 point differential. That said, Miami’s wheeling and dealing—including trades of Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick—has netted the team a treasure trove of picks in the next two years. Miami now owns 13 picks in the 2020 draft, including three first-rounders (their own, which will likely be the top pick, plus one from Houston and one from Pittsburgh) and two second-rounders. The Dolphins are also projected to have about $117 million in cap space to work with next year, then another two first-rounders in 2021. This is a full-on rebuild, and the Dolphins certainly have accumulated some much-needed capital.

What’s Gone Wrong

It doesn’t feel like we need to spend a lot of time here. The team has traded away just about everything that had any value. It really doesn’t matter what Flores or the team does this year, because everything is designed around sacrificing the present to build in the future. In fact, you might put “losing badly every game” in the category above.