Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Over/Under: New NFL Coaches

By Brad Oremland

Seven of the NFL's 32 teams have changed head coaches since the end of the 2014 regular season. Some will take over rebuilding teams, while a few step in to guide strong programs that for whatever reason changed course. Here, I'll briefly evaluate each new coach's situation, and guess how long he might hold his new job.

We'll go through the new coaches alphabetically. For each one, you'll find his new team, his job last year, and my estimate — in the form of an Over/Under betting line — of how long he'll coach the new team.

Todd Bowles

New York Jets
2014: defensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals
Over/Under: 4.5 seasons

I wrote the outline of this article, including the Over/Under estimates, right before the Super Bowl. The figure for Bowles is ... generous. It suggests that Bowles will at least begin a fifth season as head coach of the Jets. That's higher than I would probably set the bar today, but I want to re-create my thinking from two weeks ago, to explain why I believe this hire will be successful.

Start with Bowles. He was a hot head coaching candidate; the Jets weren't the only team that wanted him. Bowles played in the NFL — he started on the team that won Super Bowl XXII — and he's been coaching for almost 20 years. He was interim head coach of the Dolphins for a few games in 2011, after Tony Sparano was fired, and he spent the past two seasons as Bruce Arians' defensive coordinator in Arizona. This year, Bowles was named Assistant Coach of the Year by the Associated Press, earning nearly twice as many votes (22) as second-place Rod Marinelli (12).

The Jets showed a lot of patience with Rex Ryan, so Bowles doesn't have to win the Super Bowl in 2016 to keep his job. I think there's an understanding in the organization and among fans that the Jets are a couple years away from contending, so you wouldn't expect a lot of pressure on the new coach to win right away. The biggest problem in New York has been the offense, and the quarterback position in particular. Bowles brought in respected offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, and there are some good young players on defense, so the pieces are in place for Bowles to succeed.

Jack Del Rio

Oakland Raiders
2014: defensive coordinator, Denver Broncos
Over/Under: 2.25 seasons

Del Río coached the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine seasons, leading them to the playoffs in 2005 and 2007. Since then, he's had a successful run as defensive coordinator of the Broncos. But it's hard to be optimistic about any Raiders coach. Including interim HC Tony Sparano, Del Río is Oakland's 10th head coach in the last 15 years. No Raider coach has lasted three full seasons since Jon Gruden from 1998-2001.

Will Del Río last longer than Bill Callahan (2 years), Norv Turner (2), Art Shell (1), Lane Kiffin (1½), Tom Cable (2½), Hue Jackson (1), and Dennis Allen (2½)? Immediate success is unlikely, because this team is terrible. Dennis Allen isn't Vince Lombardi, but the team didn't go 11-37 the last three years just because it was badly coached. There's not a lot of talent on the roster, the rest of the AFC West is very strong, and it will probably be at least three seasons before the Raiders can realistically expect to make the playoffs.

To make matters worse, there are persistent rumors about the Raiders returning to Los Angeles, or moving to St. Louis to replace the Rams when they return to L.A. Teams usually look for a fresh start when they change locations. The Browns fired Bill Belichick when they moved to Baltimore. The Rams fired Chuck Knox when they went to St. Louis. The Raiders dropped Art Shell, coming off a winning season, when they returned to Oakland. If the Raiders go 6-10 in 2016 and move to Southern California in 2017, Del Río isn't coming with them.

It's very shaky whether the new staff will last through three seasons. This evaluation isn't an indictment of Del Río, it's just the state of the organization.

John Fox

Chicago Bears
2014: head coach, Denver Broncos
Over/Under: 4.5 seasons

At first glance, this looks like a win-win hire. Fox led the Broncos to four straight division titles before his firing last month, and he had a good track record in Carolina before that. The Bears have to be excited about landing a proven coach. Conversely, the Bears have some really good players, and they're ready to win now.

The trouble for Fox is two-fold. First of all, expectations are pretty high, considering the team's poor record over the past two years. Fans expect Fox to improve on that immediately. Furthermore, everyone will expect Fox to sustain that success — which could prove difficult, since most of the team's good players are older, and the foolishly lavish contract presented to Jay Cutler last season limits the team's capacity to improve the roster through free agency. Basically, the Bears have to draft really well the next couple of years. That probably shouldn't inspire much confidence. As with the projection for Bowles, this is probably a touch too generous. If we were really offering odds on Fox's tenure, I'd set this Under around -130.

Gary Kubiak

Denver Broncos
2014: offensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens
Over/Under: 4 seasons

Four the seven "new" head coaches have previous NFL head coaching experience: Del Río with the Jaguars, Fox with the Panthers and Broncos, Rex Ryan with the Jets, and Kubiak as HC of the Houston Texans. Houston won back-to-back division titles in 2011 and 2012, then got fired before the end of the 2013 season. He went to Baltimore (where he replaced current Lions coach Jim Caldwell) and succeeded beyond even the most optimistic expectations. Joe Flacco had a career year, Justin Forsett played like Ray Rice, and Steve Smith played his best football in several years.

So the Broncos have hired someone with very strong qualifications, and someone with links to the franchise. Kubiak spent a decade as John Elway's backup, and he was an assistant to Mike Shanahan on the teams that won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. Cherry on top, the Broncos are great. They've won the AFC West four years in a row, and they were the second seed in the AFC playoffs this year. They have talent at every position, and you'd project them to succeed going forward.

That's both a blessing and a curse for Kubiak. He takes over a great team, where he can win right away. But he also assumes control of a team expecting success, and if Denver goes 8-8, he's going to face heat immediately. Peyton Manning's future with the team remains uncertain, and as soon as he retires, the structure of this team will alter dramatically. Kubiak's challenges will be (1) sustaining success in 2015, and (2) not falling off a cliff without Peyton.

Dan Quinn

Atlanta Falcons
2014: defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
Over/Under: 3 seasons

I didn't like the quick hook for Mike Smith. He took over a 4-12 team that hadn't made the playoffs in three years, and led it to five straight winning seasons, including four playoff appearances. Injuries ruined the 2013 season (4-12) and the club failed to rebound in 2014 (6-10), but I don't think two mediocre years justify firing the winningest coach in franchise history. All this is to say, ownership has high expectations, so there's pressure for Quinn to produce quickly. On the other hand, he has the support of management, which eschewed the typical pressure to make a fast hire, waiting until after the Super Bowl so Quinn would be available. Certainly he's produced a strong résumé in Seattle.

The Falcons have unmistakeable talent on offense. Tony Gonzalez is retired, Roddy White is slowing down, and Steven Jackson has slowed down. But Matt Ryan is legit, and Julio Jones is a weapon. White can still play, and the line is alright. I noted in Week 17, "Whoever the team brings in will need to improve the run game and especially the defense, which ranked worst in the NFL in yards allowed." Quinn has achieved great defensive results, and it makes sense that the front office would have faith in him to address the problem. But there's a lot of work to be done, and I'm skeptical that the new coach can meet ownership's expectations before they lose patience and decide the problem is coaching.

Rex Ryan

Buffalo Bills
2014: head coach, New York Jets
Over/Under: 3.5 seasons

The most interesting, and most fun hire of the offseason: the flamboyant Ryan moving to a division rival. There were briefly rumors about the Jets hiring former Bills coach Doug Marrone, which would have been too much fun, the teams flipping coaches, like a challenge trade. Alas, the Jets hired Bowles instead. That's okay: Ryan is more interesting than Marrone anyway.

In 2014, the Bills had their first winning season since The Music City Miracle. With Kyle Orton at quarterback, the defensive line — Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes — dominated opponents and put Buffalo in position to win. I like Ryan as a head coach; there are some things he does really well. But he's a strange hire, simply because the immediate challenge in Buffalo is exactly what Ryan failed to accomplish in New York: maintain a great defense while improving an offense that badly needs quarterback help. Orton retired following the season, leaving E.J. Manuel the presumptive starter in 2015.

No Bills coach has lasted four seasons since Marv Levy retired in 1997. Wade Phillips (29-19), Gregg Williams (17-31), Mike Mularkey (14-18), Dick Jauron (24-33), Perry Fewell (3-4), Chan Gailey (16-32), and Doug Marrone (15-17) have all resigned or been fired prior to completing a fourth season. Mularkey and Marrone simply left, without getting fired. The likelihood of Ryan still holding this job in 2019 seems pretty low.

Jim Tomsula

San Francisco 49ers
2014: defensive line coach, 49ers
Over/Under: 3.25 seasons

Obviously, this is a weird situation. The team fired an incredibly successful coach, Jim Harbaugh, and promoted Tomsula from within. Both coordinators left to accept other positions. The Niners have a ton of talent, especially their incomparable linebacking corps, and expectations are really high. Tomsula faces additional pressure because, although Harbaugh was unpopular within the organization, he was beloved by fans. If San Francisco doesn't come out of the gate strong, Tomsula is going to hear a lot of Harbaugh comparisons, all of them reflecting negatively upon himself.

The other side of the equation, however, is that this first-time head coach (not including his brief stint as interim coach after Mike Singletary's firing) has just taken over a very good team, one that can win right away. There's little to no rebuilding necessary in San Francisco. It's hard to fire a coach who's winning games, but it's easy to can someone who appears to be underachieving. The Niners have demonstrated very little patience with their coaches since Steve Mariucci — the run-down looks a lot like Buffalo's — so I'm not optimistic about Tomsula's future.

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