Black Monday has come and gone, and hiring season is underway. As teams fill their coaching and front office vacancies, we break down what each notable hire means below.
Titans hire Mike Mularkey as head coach
The résumé: The numbers certainly don’t jump off the page. Per Pro Football Reference, Mularkey’s 18–39 career record as a head coach represents the 10th-worst winning percentage (.316) among the 157 men who have coached at least 50 games. Eight weeks into his second year as Tennessee’s tight ends coach (he had tacked on an assistant head coach title prior to the 2015 season), Mularkey took over as interim coach when Ken Whisenhunt was shown the door. After pulling out an overtime win over the Saints in his first game in charge, the Titans dropped six of their last seven games to finish 3–13.
Mularkey’s previous two shots at full-time head coaching jobs ended quickly. His 2004 Bills team went 9–7 but lost the last game of the season with a playoff spot on the line, and he resigned after Buffalo backslid to 5–11 the following year. He parlayed four successful seasons as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator from 2008 to 2011 into the Jaguars’ top job in 2012, but Jacksonville finished 2–14 and cleaned house.
That adds up to a 9–32 record in Mularkey’s last two-and-a-half seasons in charge of a team.
What it means: Like the Buccaneers’ decision to promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, this move had to be made with continuity for a young franchise quarterback in mind—or at least as much continuity as you can hope for after a midseason coaching change. Otherwise, it’s a total head-scratcher for a Titans team that probably shouldn’t try to use much of 2015’s dismal season as a building block for the future. Tennessee didn’t look much more dangerous down the stretch with Mularkey in charge, although Marcus Mariota was sidelined for good in Week 15 after battling injuries for most of the year. Only tight wins over the Saints and Jaguars kept this season from being remembered as a spectacular flameout after a dominant performance against the Bucs in Week 1.
Mariota’s development will be front and center in Tennessee for the next few years, and the Titans are banking on Mularkey to replicate the work he did with a young Matt Ryan in Atlanta. But Mularkey didn’t make much of his first two shots at handling the head coaching responsibilities for a reason, and if Tennessee winds up back in the market for a coach in three years or fewer, they run the risk of messing with Mariota’s growth, to say nothing of the rest of the roster.
The Titans have the first pick in April’s draft, and with one of the league’s thinnest depth charts, they sorely need to hit on it. New general manager Jon Robinson reportedly scored points in his interview with his willingness to retain Mularkey as head coach, but he has to make some other drastic changes to the franchise’s direction to bring it back up to respectability. —Eric Single
Bucs promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach
The résumé: A longtime college coach, 56-year-old Koetter spent time at UTEP, Missouri, Boston College, Oregon, Boise State and Arizona State before he reached the NFL as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator in 2007. He's been an offensive coordinator for Jacksonville (2007-2011), Atlanta (2012-2014) and Tampa Bay (2015), and his only head coaching experience is at Boise State (1998-2001) and Arizona State (2001-2006). An interesting note about Koetter is that in each of his NFL stops, the Jags, Falcons and Bucs ranked in the top 10 in total offense in the first year, and then fell in the second. The best talent he had was in Atlanta, though that was during the franchise's recent decline that led to Mike Smith's firing.
Koetter prefers a balanced attack, with a power running game that leads to explosive passing plays. For the Bucs in 2015, he drew up an offense that allowed rookie Jameis Winston to put up one of the better first-year seasons for any NFL quarterback, Doug Martin to amass the second-most rushing yards in the league (1,402), and second-year receiver Mike Evans to expand upon his reception and yardage totals (though he sadly couldn't do much about Evans' drop rate.) Other NFL teams had been sniffing around One Buc Place to inquire about Koetter, and Tampa decided to make sure that interest was a moot point.
What it means: First and foremost, it means consistency of scheme for Winston—and in today's NFL, one could argue that the right support system for the quarterback is more important than anything else. The Bucs are by no means the first NFL team to hire their head coach on that basis, and that's a big part of why Koetter is replacing Lovie Smith. Winston took every single snap for his team in 2015, one of only three quarterbacks to do that this season, and he finished with 312 completions in 535 attempts for 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Koetter has a preference for big quarterbacks who will stand in the pocket and deliver, making the deep throw when necessary, and that's exactly what Winston does. In Winston, Martin, Evans and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have the base of a talented offense, and if they can build around that (especially along the offensive line), things look pretty good on that side of the ball.
Where things get interesting is how Koetter and general manager Jason Licht will fill out his staff. Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier seemed to regress to a lot of basic Cover-2 and Tampa-2 schemes, which limited the team's options and made that defense all too easy to read. Tampa Bay's best defensive players, tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, aren't really built for a 3-4 base or hybrid team, so one would imagine that they'll stick with a 4-3 base and some more creative game-planning.
McCoy and David alone count for $23 million of Tampa Bay's 2016 salary cap, so adherence to the same basic personnel groupings would make a lot of sense. Among the team's other big contracts, Jackson is on the hook for $12.2 million, and the Bucs could unload almost $10 million of that with his release. So, Jackson will likely have to restructure or be gone—he played in just 10 games last season.
The good news is that Licht, the team's general manager over the last two seasons, has put together two strong drafts, and there's a host of underrated players on this roster who have broken out even under Smith's unsuccessful tenure. Halfback Charles Sims has proven to be a do-it-all dynamo in the run and pass game, William Gholston and Clinton McDonald are stout run defenders with some pass-rush potential, and linebacker Danny Lansanah has thrived as a thumper on the strong side.
Despite his long and esteemed history in the NFL as a defensive coordinator and head coach, it became clear that Smith was unable to get his arms around the whole picture. He appeared to be at a loss to explain his team's struggles at times, and when you combine that with an 8–24 record over two seasons, making a change wasn't the most outlandish idea. Now Koetter will have to prove that he's the man to turn things around. —Doug Farrar
Eagles reportedly set to hire Doug Pederson as head coach
The résumé: A product of Louisiana-Monroe, Pederson played 10 NFL seasons as a quarterback, the majority of that experience coming as a Green Bay backup. His most starts in a single season (nine) came in 1999, his lone year with the Eagles.
Pederson comes off the Andy Reid coaching tree. He and Reid were together in Philadelphia from 2009 to ’12, with Pederson first serving as a quality control assistant and then as quarterbacks coach. He has been Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City since 2013, and the Chiefs finished top 10 in scoring all three years.
What it means: That the Eagles did not enjoy the Chip Kelly era. Pederson is not a carbon copy of Reid, but he’s about as close as Philadelphia could come to bringing back its coach prior to Kelly. Pederson not only had a long, first-hand look at how Reid handles a team; he also knows what to expect running the show in Philadelphia.
This was a relatively quick rise through the coaching ranks for Pederson—as of 2008, he was coaching high school football in Louisiana. His success, specifically with the Chiefs’ offense and veteran quarterback Alex Smith, would have opened a head-coaching door for him in near future, if not in Philadelphia then elsewhere.
“He has an opportunity, and it’s a compliment to the hard work that he’s put in, and he’s done a nice job,” said Reid of his protege. “He’s ready to do that, and if he has the opportunity, more power to him.”
The Eagles will have to determine if soon-to-be free agent Sam Bradford could enjoy an Alex Smith-like surge under Pederson’s watch. If not, Mark Sanchez will enter the off-season as Philadelphia’s No. 1 QB, at least until the position is addressed in free agency or the draft. Pederson should be able to transition the remaining offensive weapons to his system without too much of an issue—Kelly didn’t get far in swapping out the roster. DeMarco Murray could benefit in a big way.
Pederson will need to find a right-hand man capable of fixing the defense. His background, both as a player and coach, is on the offensive side of the ball; Philadelphia ranked 28th in scoring defense and dead last against the run last season. —Chris Burke
49ers hire Chip Kelly as head coach
The résumé: Everyone knows the story to this point. After more than a decade on New Hampshire’s staff, he landed at Oregon and helped revolutionize college football. Kelly spent two years as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, then produced a dazzling 46–7 record as their head coach, including a trip to the national championship.
The Eagles hired him 2013, and he immediately produced a 10–6 record and an NFC East title. But the Eagles missed the playoffs the next season, despite another 10–6 record. Kelly took over personnel control the ensuing off-season, which is when it all began to fall apart. Kelly’s revamped roster was just 6–9 when he was fired prior to Week 17.
What it means: Among other things, that the NFC West has become even more intriguing than it was. The Cardinals and Seahawks are still alive in this year's playoffs, the Rams are headed to Los Angeles and now the 49ers will give Kelly a second crack at NFL success.
Kelly’s arrival shines a bright spotlight on QB Colin Kaepernick; just a few weeks ago, many were speculating that the QB had played his last game in a 49ers uniform—Blaine Gabbert was San Francisco’s starter down the stretch, while Kaepernick landed on injured reserve. But in theory, his dual-threat abilities should pair well with what Kelly dreams of doing offensively. Back in his college career at Nevada, Kaepernick thrived in a creative, pistol-based, read-option heavy attack.
The 28-year-old Kaepernick actually remains under contract through the 2020 season, though the $114 million extension he signed in 2014 does allow the 49ers to release him from here out without taking too significant a cap hit.
His future will be decided by ... well, that's a good question. 49ers CEO Jed York and GM Trent Baalke wound up pushing Jim Harbaugh out the door because there were too many egos in the room. As mentioned, though, Kelly strong-armed his way into almost complete control of the Eagles roster prior to the 2015 season. So, is he really willing to step back and allow the York/Baalke duo free reign? Is there any possible middle ground available here for the front office and Kelly to coexist?
The 49ers’ roster was in transition anyway—the 5–11 record this season was not Jim Tomsula’s fault alone (nor Kaepernick’s nor Gabbert’s). It could take at least another year or two to find the types of players needed to implement Kelly’s offense in full, and that’s if Kaepernick clicks with the scheme. Having to start over at QB would add another massive hurdle to the process.
The NFC West presents a tougher road than the NFC East, too. The Rams (again) seem close to contention, and the Seahawks and Cardinals are obvious threats. Climbing the ladder won't happen overnight for Kelly's 49ers.
The internal dynamic will be fascinating to watch here. The 2015 season showed that Kelly was in over his head as a pseudo-GM, but he’s still a brilliant football mind with a history of success as a coach. If he can take a step back and coexist with Baalke, the 49ers should be back in business before long. That is, however, a rather big “if.” —Chris Burke
Titans hire Jon Robinson as general manager
The résumé: Robinson is a Tennessee native, so that might have been a selling point by the Titans to lure him from Tampa Bay. He spent two years with the Buccaneers as their director of player personnel, following a long stint (2002–13) with the Patriots. Robinson was New England’s director of college scouting for the final five seasons of his time there.
The Titans also interviewed ex-Lions GM Martin Mayhew, Jaguars director of player personnel Chris Polian and Chiefs director of football operations Chris Ballard for the gig.
What it means: Robinson’s career arc pointed in the direction of a GM job, and his time with the Patriots likely appealed to Tennessee in the same way that Bob Quinn’s New England background helped sell him to Detroit. Bill Belichick & Co. have a fine-tuned machine operating in Foxboro, one that values finding bargains—both in free agency and the draft.
Giants promote Ben McAdoo to head coach
The résumé: McAdoo served as Tom Coughlin's offensive coordinator over the past two seasons, a stretch in which Eli Manning enjoyed a clear resurgence under McAdoo's guidance. The Giants ranked seventh in passing both this year and last, with Manning tossing 35 TDs in 2015, second only to Tom Brady's 36.
McAdoo landed in New York after eight seasons with the Packers—six as the tight ends coach, then two as quarterbacks coach (a gig that came with the benefit of Aaron Rodgers). Adam Gase, 37, just became the youngest head coach in the NFL when he took Miami's job. McAdoo, 38, is not far behind.
What it means: Eli Manning may not have been directly involved with this hiring, but it's obvious the Giants had their veteran QB in mind by promoting McAdoo. The Manning-McAdoo pair had been a silver lining during two tough seasons, setting the stage for a potential NFC East run next season if GM Jerry Reese can fix the defense.
“I guess from a selfish standpoint, yes, I'd like to be in the same offense,” Manning told Mike Francesa earlier this month, via NJ.com. “I think coach McAdoo and I work well together, and our preparation and getting ready for each week. I think this year, I think I really had a firm grasp of the offense and what we were doing, we were on the same page and I think we did a good job.”
New York moving McAdoo up the ladder also keeps division rival Philadelphia from getting its hands on him. McAdoo interviewed for Chip Kelly's old job, and The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane reported that the Eagles were “ready to hire the new Giants head coach” themselves.
What remains to be seen now is if continuity for Manning and the offense translates to success across the board. Reese still holds his position, despite myriad personnel misfires (Odell Beckham Jr. excluded). Early reports also indicated that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would remain—the Giants finished 30th in points allowed and 32nd in yardage this season.
Had Tom Coughlin's time merely run its course or were the Giants in need of a total reset? If it's the latter, promoting internally does little to further the cause. But McAdoo appeared en route to a head coaching job one way or another, so the Giants will cross their fingers that he offers the fresh outlook they need. —CB
Browns hire Hue Jackson as head coach
The résumé: Jackson, 50, had been with the Bengals since 2012, serving as the team's offensive coordinator the past two seasons. Taking advantage of a versatile depth chart and his creative playbook, Jackson had the Cincinnati offense cooking toward one of its best seasons in ages, until an injury sidelined QB Andy Dalton.
His work fine-tuning the Bengals’ attack no doubt played a role as Jackson headed into January as a highly coveted coaching candidate. This will be his second stint as an NFL head coach—he guided the Raiders to an 8–8 record in 2011; since firing him, Oakland has finished 4–12, 4–12, 3–13 and 7–9.
What it means: For starters, this stands as a decent indication that Cleveland might be onto something this off-season as it revamps its front office. Jackson interviewed with the 49ers and was expected to interview with the Giants prior to taking this job, so he could have left his options open. After that tumultuous one-year run with the Raiders, it’s safe to assume he was in no hurry to jump back into a potentially disastrous situation.
The Browns have a ways to go before anyone considers them a stable organization, but the promotion of Sashi Brown to VP of football operations and the hiring of former Moneyballer Paul DePodesta signaled a much-needed shift in philosophy. Landing Jackson is another massive piece to the puzzle.
Jackson found himself in a messy situation during that 2011 season with Oakland; he returned the following year to Cincinnati, where he had served as Marvin Lewis’s assistant from 2004–06.
“He came back with the perspective of a head coach,” Lewis said of Jackson back in September. “There's a lot of leaning on each other. I can go in and ask Hue a question, or look at something critically, and he doesn't take offense. He knows what I'm doing. ... I know he's looking at it from the big picture and not just one-sided. That's a good perspective to have. When you gain that kind of experience, I'd be foolish not to listen to it.”
Two of Lewis’s former assistants, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, both reached the playoffs this season in just their second year as head coaches.
Whom will Jackson want as his quarterback? That will be perhaps the most pressing question now. Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel both are under contract for the 2016 season, but the former is a 36-year-old coming off an injury-plagued season and the latter is ... well, he could be anywhere doing anything right now.
Jackson also needs to find a competent defensive coordinator. His hire reverses course from Mike Pettine—NFL teams often pull similar 180s when a certain approach fails, flip-flopping from a defensive-minded head coach to one with a background in offense. The Browns, though, have been abysmal defensively. No matter how much magic Jackson works on offense, it won't matter if the defense flops again. —CB
Dolphins hire Adam Gase as head coach
The résumé: Gase had turned himself into one of the most appealing head coaching candidates over the last few years in his work with quarterbacks Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler in Denver, and Jay Cutler in Chicago. It was not a huge surprise, therefore, that he found himself as the first head coach hired as several teams look to fill vacancies this month.
Gase started his coaching career as a graduate and recruiting assistant for Nick Saban at LSU, and then spent 2003–07 as a scouting assistant and quarterbacks coach. He spent 2008 as an offensive assistant for the 49ers and became the Broncos’ receivers coach in ’09. He moved to quarterbacks coach in 2011, and offensive coordinator the year after. He was able to deliver both Tebow’s need for schematic simplicity and Manning’s total adherence to structure when each was under center. The common perception of Manning’s offensive coordinators is that they’re mere water-carriers for Manning as he runs the show, but Manning has referred to Gase as one of the smartest people he knows, and Denver’s struggles on offense after Gase followed John Fox to Chicago speak to his ability to do what’s best for the quarterback he has.
Gase did just that for Cutler in 2015. Cutler has had several different coaches and coordinators throughout his career, and it’s always been a challenge to get him to play consistently within structure. Gase adjusted his coaching to Cutler’s strengths and minimized his weaknesses without trying to completely limit his ability to improvise—and Cutler responded with the second-lowest interception percentage (2.3%) of his career.
What it means: Four years into his tenure as the Dolphins’ starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill has taken a lot of criticism for a player with 87 career touchdowns to 54 interceptions, and as much as his own play has been uneven at times, it’s hard to put everything on a young quarterback who has had three different offensive coordinators (Mike Sherman, Bill Lazor and Zac Taylor) in four seasons. Part of Gase’s strength as a coach is that he can bring stability to teams and quarterbacks who haven’t seen enough from his predecessors, which makes him an ideal fit for his situation.
The Dolphins have estimable talent on both sides of the ball. Tannehill has what it takes to be successful with the right coach. Jarvis Landry had a breakout season as the centerpiece of the passing game, the offensive line is flawed but fixable and running back Lamar Miller can be a franchise back if he’s used correctly. Now, the Dolphins have a coach who has proven to be a master chef with the groceries he’s been given. The wisdom of this hire will ultimately be determined by Tannehill’s development, but for now, this looks like the best possible choice for the Dolphins and for Gase. —Doug Farrar
Lions name Bob Quinn general manager
The résumé: Quinn has been with the Patriots since 2000—his lone NFL after graduating from Connecticut and then working as a graduate assistant for the Huskies. He was the team's Director of Pro Scouting from 2012–15.
“Bob has done a good job,” Bill Belichick said on a conference call earlier this week. “Been with us for a long time and has had a number of different responsibilities in the scouting department—pro, college, advance, different projects and all that. He’s done a real solid job.”
Quinn was one of four reported candidates for the Lions’ vacant GM position, a list which also included Detroit interim GM Sheldon White, the Seahawks’ Trent Kirchner and Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams.
What it means: The first challenge facing Quinn will be deciding what to do with the coaching staff. Jim Caldwell still holds his post as head coach, flanked by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, but recently hired team president Rod Wood has said multiple times that the new GM would decide Caldwell’s fate. Also, Austin is currently a candidate for multiple head coaching jobs around the league, perhaps complicating matters further.
Should Quinn decide to let Caldwell go, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would be a natural option as a replacement given the New England connection.
And it is that background which no doubt made Quinn so appealing in the first place. Belichick brushed off questions about analytics earlier this week, in light of Cleveland’s hire of Paul DePodesta, but New England’s front office long has placed an emphasis on that aspect of roster building. Will Quinn continue the pattern in Detroit? Will he attempt to find his own Ernie Adams, the behind-the-scenes guru so key to Belichick’s success?
Lots on the table for Quinn in the coming weeks. Oh, and did we mention that Calvin Johnson might retire? —CB
Browns hire Paul DePodesta as Chief Strategy Officer
The résumé: Football fans might better recognize DePodesta as the semi-fictional Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill in the movie Moneyball. That character was based on DePodesta’s presence in the book of the same name, which famously introduced the world to A’s general manager Billy Beane’s efforts to build a competitive club with a limited payroll. Since, DePodesta has been a mainstay in MLB front offices, serving as the Dodgers’ GM, a special assistant in the Padres’ front office and finally the Mets’ vice president of scouting and player development.
DePodesta’s football background? He played at Harvard and began his professional career as an intern for the CFL’s Baltimore Stallions.
What it means: Well, this is different. Very, very different. Two days after naming Sashi Brown, formerly the team’s general counsel, to the role of executive VP, the Browns reached into the world of sabermetrics as they round out their front office.
“His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport,” owner Jimmy Haslam said of DePodesta, “and his experience as a high level sports executive make him a terrific addition to the Cleveland Browns.”
We shall see. DePodesta’s arrival signals a bold step outside the box by a franchise that has been stuck in neutral, and it represents a major advancement in how analytics could impact the NFL moving forward. Just about every franchise will be keeping tabs on how DePodesta’s presence pays off (or fails to) in Cleveland.
Give the Browns credit for trying something new. The status quo obviously wasn’t working. —CB
Dolphins name Chris Grier general manager
The résumé: Grier has been in the Miami organization since 2000, and he has been the franchise’s college scouting director for the past nine seasons. He interviewed for the Jets’ vacant general manager gig last off-season, so it may have been only a matter of time until he landed this type of promotion somewhere. The Dolphins decided to keep him in house, where he’ll be tasked with fixing the mistakes of former GM Dennis Hickey, who lasted less than two years in that gig.
What it means: Per the Dolphins’ press release announcing the move, Grier “will oversee the draft and personnel departments, reporting directly to Executive Vice President, Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum.” How the dynamic between Grier, Tannenbaum and the TBD coach actually will be worth monitoring in the coming weeks. Will Grier be given enough rope to implement his vision fully or is this going to be Tannenbaum’s show with Grier’s input?
This is a critical off-season for the Dolphins, as they hunt for a new coach. Grier has been trending toward a GM job, so giving him that opportunity in Miami seems like a smart move, at least on paper. —CB