Thanks to the Broncos’ sizable upset of Carolina in Super Bowl 50, Denver’s Gary Kubiak became the NFL’s seventh active coach to join the rather exclusive club of Super-Bowl winning coaches. With Kubiak reaching the ultimate winner’s circle in his first year on the job in Denver, he’s just the fourth coach in the Super Bowl era to earn a ring right off the bat, and first since Jon Gruden took over Tampa Bay in 2002 and led the Bucs to the title.
Last year at this time, Kubiak was one of the NFL’s seven new coaches, and easily the one who carried the largest burden of immediate expectations, given that the Broncos had won four consecutive AFC West crowns under John Fox and were only one year removed from a Super Bowl run. None of the league’s other six new coaches took over 2014 playoff clubs, so while Kubiak’s challenge was stiffer, his ability to deliver vindicated the risk Denver general manager John Elway took in hiring him and likely ended the franchise’s four-year Peyton Manning era on the highest of notes.
Kubiak was the only first-year coach in 2015 to reach the playoffs, although the Jets’ Todd Bowles came close with a 10–6 inaugural season in New York and both Atlanta’s Dan Quinn and Buffalo’s Rex Ryan turned in 8–8 first efforts that were disappointing for different reasons. Oakland’s Jack Del Rio (7–9), Chicago’s Fox (6–10) and San Francisco’s already-fired Jim Tomsula (5–11) all led non-contenders that finished either third or fourth in their division.
Once again this year, there are seven new coaches in the NFL, but none of them are taking over a 2015 playoff team or one with as loaded a roster as the one Kubiak inherited in Denver. In fact, none of the seven teams that made coaching changes finished with even a .500 record last season, with five of them being last-place clubs (Browns at 3–13, Titans at 3–13, 49ers at 5–11, Dolphins at 6–10, and Bucs at 6–10), and only the 7–9 second-place Eagles and 6–10 third-place Giants slightly bucking that trend. Among that group of losers, only Philadelphia and San Francisco have made the playoffs even as recently as 2013, with the Giants (last postseason trip in ’11), Dolphins and Titans (both ’08), Bucs (’07) and Browns (’02) working on lengthy playoff droughts.
Is there another right-from-the-start hire like Kubiak in this year’s new coaching crop? Not likely, at least in terms of the 2016 season’s eventual Super Bowl winner. But there is plenty of room for this year’s coaching class to improve the fortunes of their teams, so let’s rank them in terms of who has the best chance to author a turnaround season in 2016, culminating in a playoff berth:
1. Chip Kelly, San Francisco
See if this sounds familiar: In 2013, Kelly took over a last-place Eagles team that has gone 8–8 and 4–12 in its past two seasons, missing the playoffs after a sustained streak of postseason appearances. There were question marks at quarterback in Philly, but Kelly took a little Michael Vick and a little Nick Foles, and wound up leading the Eagles to a 10–6 record, the NFC East title and a playoff berth.
In 2016, Kelly takes over a last-place 49ers team that has gone 8–8 and 5–11 in its past two seasons, missing the playoffs after a sustained streak of appearances. There are questions at quarterback in San Francisco, with Kelly having the option of trying to fix the struggling Colin Kaepernick, draft a first-round passer at No. 7 or perhaps toss the keys to veteran Blaine Gabbert, who played surprisingly well in Kaepernick’s relief at the end of last season.
Ergo, is there a bounce-back 10–6 playoff season in store in San Francisco with Kelly’s first-year magic being repeated? It’s not out of the question, but the 49ers play in perhaps the toughest division in the league and have plenty more holes to fill than just the quarterback slot (like receiver). Still, Kelly is the only new coach in this year’s contingent with a 10-win season to his credit in the NFL, and he’s got two of them. The league’s other two re-tread hires—Cleveland’s Hue Jackson and Tennessee’s Mike Mularkey—can’t say that. Giving Kelly personnel authority turned into an unmitigated disaster in Philadelphia, but the man can coach and his 49ers offense could become top-five material with him calling the plays.
2. Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay
The Bucs sacked Lovie Smith and elevated Koetter from offensive coordinator because they loved his developmental work with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston, and that relationship alone gives Tampa Bay reason to have legitimate playoff hopes next season. The Bucs were 6–6 and looking dangerous before running out of gas in December, but there are young playmakers on both sides of the ball in Tampa Bay.
Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards at the helm of Tampa Bay’s offense, which ranked fifth in the league, and with a strong Doug Martin-led running game (he’s a free agent who wants to re-sign in Tampa Bay), the Bucs have a pretty solid formula to build on in 2016. I love Koetter’s hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the former Falcons coach who knows how to teach and motivate a defense. Lovie Smith’s defense had started to look outdated, but Mike Smith has a lot to work with on his side of the ball. It also helps that Tampa Bay plays in the NFC South, where only Carolina is a true NFC power.
3. Doug Pederson, Philadelphia
Pederson seems like such an unknown quantity, but the reality is that the Eagles are only a year removed from back-to-back 10-win seasons, so a total rebuild after last year’s slippage to 7–9 is hardly in store. Owner Jeffrey Lurie opted for harkening back to his club’s largely successful Andy Reid era with this hire, and maybe some of Reid’s solid and steady demeanor is exactly what the Eagles need right now. And if Pederson has the “emotional intelligence’’ that Lurie found lacking in Chip Kelly, all the better.
I’m a firm believer that Philly tapping ex-Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to coordinate the defense was one of the best moves in the NFL this hiring season, and he’ll have the Eagles playing an aggressive and disruptive brand of ball. Pederson might need some on the job training, but if he gets his quarterback situation figured out reasonably well, a playoff berth in the less-than-scintillating NFC East is always within reach.
4. Adam Gase, Miami
The Dolphins finally landed their top choice in a coaching search, so now let’s see what young Mr. Gase, 37, has got. Gase did good work with both Peyton Manning in Denver and Jay Cutler in Chicago, but those guys both had enjoyed success without him, so let’s not over-state his impact on their games.
In Miami, Gase has a challenge at a whole ‘nother level: making the inconsistent Ryan Tannehill into a top-tier quarterback. Tannehill has teased us with his potential at times, but for the most part he’s been a four-year enigma with the Dolphins, never sustaining his success and struggling to make his team leadership obvious. Miami has offensive weapons to work with in Jarvis Landry, Jordan Cameron and Lamar Miller, but Gase has to elevate Tannehill’s game or the Dolphins will again go nowhere.
On defense, there is talent galore, but first-time defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will try his hand at lighting a fire under Ndamukong Suh and the rest of the underachievers on that side of the ball. Throw in the tough AFC East that Miami resides in, and anything over 8–8 in Gase’s first season will register as a significant accomplishment.
5. Ben McAdoo, New York Giants
The Giants are always about continuity and stability, and they proved it again when they bumped McAdoo to the top job and kept defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in place; in effect, they stated that the only change needed was the exit of coach Tom Coughlin. But I don’t really disagree with their thinking. Coughlin had lost his fastball and become a liability on the game management front, and his Giants made the same mistakes over and over again, year in and year out.
McAdoo, 38, may not be quite ready for this promotion, and only had two years of experience as an offensive coordinator, but it’s a calculated risk New York was willing to take because it didn’t want to lose him to another team. Eli Manning and the passing game won’t miss a beat with McAdoo in charge, but this Giants team won’t return to the playoffs until the undermanned defense improves, and that’s going to take a couple drafts and some solid free agency work to accomplish.
6. Hue Jackson Cleveland
The Browns definitely got the right guy for their job, because you have to be a born optimist with an unlimited amount of energy and determination to try and turn around the most demoralized and dysfunctional situation in the NFL. Jackson has the self-confidence to actually believe he’s up to the challenge and that’s half the battle for a franchise that has lost as long the Browns have, with a string of disastrous decisions stretching all the way back to the team’s 1999 expansion season.
Jackson must find himself a quarterback—no news flash there—and stop the bleeding at the position that has tormented the Browns. But with the No. 2 pick in the draft, fresh hope will arrive at the end of April on that front, and Jackson’s track record of disguising a quarterback’s weaknesses and maximizing his strengths will come in very handy. This is no overnight project Jackson has undertaken, and the AFC North is always top heavy, but the Browns can at least dream of relevancy in 2016.
7. Mike Mularkey, Tennessee
The Titans have gone 5–27 the past two seasons, which isn’t easy to do when you play in one of the league’s weakest divisions. While there isn’t anything inspiring about Tennessee’s decision to retain Mularkey and remove the interim tag, his elevation at least provides franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota with a sense of continuity, rather than the alternative of playing under three different head coaches in his first two seasons in the league.
The Titans hold the No. 1 pick in the draft and can again add a major piece to their puzzle, or even better, perhaps trade down and go for multiple selections that will speed their return to contention. They’re not going to be the playoff race no matter what this season, so 2016 is all about Mariota’s development, building on the foundation of talent that does exist on the roster, and aiding talented players like receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan in their NFL maturation process.