With six of the league’s eight head-coaching vacancies filled, the hunt is on to find offensive and defensive coordinators who fit the bill.
Delve no further than the Los Angeles Rams for a case study in how this process promises to affect a team for years to come. While it’s fair to fawn over the wunderkind genius of Sean McVay, he has been helped immensely by the coaches he recruited to join the mission.
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Veteran defensive mind Wade Phillips brought instant credibility and made it clear that McVay, a fresh-faced 30-year-old when plucked from the Redskins a couple years ago, had earned tangible trust and credibility from his peers — no matter his birthdate.
A strong and unified coaching staff, free from in-house drama and Machiavellian lever-pullers, is critical to longevity for any head coach — especially those diving into these choppy, unpredictable waters for the first time.
With hires still happening in real-time, let’s take a look at which of these newly appointed coordinators matters most:
Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich: While the NFL certainly has room to improve in terms of fielding a more diverse array of head coaches, new Bucs coach Bruce Arians has operated ahead of the curve for years when building his own staff. After telling reporters in April of 2015 that a female head coach was a genuine possibility someday — "The minute they can prove they can make a player better, they’ll be hired," he said — Arians, three months later, made Dr. Jen Welter the first female assistant coach in NFL history.
Arians has shown extreme loyalty to young coaches angling to grow — with Leftwich as his latest example. After working with the former quarterback in Pittsburgh, Arians brought the 39-year-old to Arizona in 2017 to tutor signal-callers for the Cards. Leftwich kept that role under Steve Wilks in 2018 and earned his first taste as a play-caller after OC Mike McCoy was fired in October.
Leftwich will do more than just hold the coordinator title in Tampa Bay, though. Arians announced last week that play-calling duties have been handed over in full to his pupil, saying: "I’ve been training guys for this job and I always said I would never give it up and look over anybody’s shoulder until I found one I knew could do it. Byron, I think, is a rising star in this business … he’s more than ready."
The immediate challenge for Leftwich boils down to matching — and topping — Tampa’s gaudy offensive numbers from 2018. Despite their 5-11 record, the Bucs finished third in total yardage, first in yards through the air and second only to the Chiefs with a juicy 8.6 yards per pass attempt. If Leftwich hopes to earn a blue ribbon, it starts with minimizing mistakes from starting passer Jameis Winston, whose 76 turnovers are tied for the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2015.
Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett: The offensive scheme will channel through head coach Matt LaFleur, but Hackett looms as a pivotal, under-the-microscope hire. The 39-year-old coordinator showed moments of promise guiding Blake Bortles and the Jaguars to the AFC title game last January. His firing 10 months later had the feel of convenient scapegoating for a Jacksonville attack saddled to that same underwhelming quarterback alongside the massively underperforming Leonard Fournette.
Hackett brings West Coast ties that match well with LaFleur’s years of work under McVay and Kyle Shanahan. The overt to-do here is a positive and productive relationship with Aaron Rodgers — not the simplest of signal-calling personalities.
Jaguars OC John DeFilippo: DeFilippo rolled into September as a popular pick to become a head coach in 2019, but a trying year as Minnesota’s play-caller flipped the narrative when the 40-year-old assistant was fired in December. Landing with the quarterback-needy Jaguars, it’s fair to ask if DeFilippo’s hire might be tied to luring Nick Foles away from Philly after the two worked so well together down the stretch of last year’s Lombardi-lifting dream season.
Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone struck down that notion this week.
"Zero. Zero at all. I mean zero," Marrone said on Wednesday. "Don’t get me wrong, everyone we brought in we tried to get information from … but (the hire) didn’t have anything to do with (a relationship with Foles)."
Fair enough, but DeFilippo may have the ear of Jaguars football czar Tom Coughlin, who handed the assistant his first job in the NFL as a quality control coach with the Giants in 2005. Could he be seen as a buy-low potential successor to Marrone if the club fails to course-correct in 2019?
Browns DC Steve Wilks: The Browns for years whipped through coaches and paid the price on defense as the club flipped to and fro between three- and four-man fronts to render first-round draft picks and specifically selected free agents totally out of place. Wilks will continue the 4-3 scheme Myles Garrett and friends were recruited to play for and should help improve the team’s run defense (ranked 28th in 2018) after showing well as a coordinator with the Panthers in 2017.
Now, his year as the Cardinals’ head coach was messy, but the defense often held its own despite pairing with one of the league’s most unwatchable attacks. Wilks and his staff struggled, but he inherited a roster with many holes and left with the support of many veteran players. This is a promising hire for a Browns team with plenty of young talent, another bushel of draft picks and plenty of cap space.
Broncos OC Rich Scangarello: With a coaching career that began in the college ranks in 1998, Scangarello has long described himself as a Kyle Shanahan admirer, telling Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee in 2017: "I started to model my offense after his. It’s what I always believed from afar. The truth is that I taught off of his film and he didn’t even know it for years."
To learn firsthand from Shanahan, Scangarello — while in his 40s — took a quality-control position with the Falcons in 2015, the kind of role normally reserved for just-out-of-college types two decades his junior. "I don’t even know if it had a title," Shanahan told Barrows of Scangarello’s duties. "It was as low as you could be."
The relationship clicked and Shanny saw enough in Scangarello to make him San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach over the past two seasons. Beyond milking starry play out of Jimmy Garoppolo and better-than-expected results out of C.J. Beathard, it was the 46-year-old position coach who unearthed 49ers backup Nick Mullens at the 2017 East-West Shrine Game and fought hard for the Niners to try him out.
"He looked like he was about 15 years old," Niners GM John Lynch told KNBR of Mullins this fall. "We literally excused ourselves (from his pre-draft visit) and said, ‘Are you kidding me, Scangarello?’ "
The challenge in Denver starts at that ultra-critical position, where another year of Case Keenum feels risky at best. The addition of Mike Munchak as offensive line coach is a genuine coup for the Broncos; the presence of young playmakers Courtland Sutton and Phillip Lindsay — the latter facing wrist-surgery rehab — helps, too. Scangarello, though, must overcome one of the shakier quarterback situations in the NFL.
Jets DC Gregg Williams: He’s a little extra, as kids like to say, but Williams has a track record of improving defenses and generating turnovers before typically wearing out his welcome. The pairing with new head coach Adam Gase is the stuff of dreams for New York tabloids, but the more tangible to-do is finding the right personnel to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 on defense. Leonard Williams still fits, same with Darron Lee, but the Jets must import trusty defensive linemen and a Joe Schobert-esque middle linebacker. With nearly $100 million in cap space, the funds are there to bolster the roster. It’s a huge offseason for general manager Mike Maccagnan.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @marcsesslernfl. Listen to Marc on the "Around The NFL Podcast" three times a week.
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