The NFL’s five head-coaching vacancies are vacant no more.
A combination of familiar faces, squeaky-clean newbies and one big-name college type filled said roles, but not all jobs are created equal.
Franchise stability, roster strength and looming quarterback questions make each of these landing spots unique terrain to navigate. Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives attached to all five of the NFL’s new hires, shall we?
Joe Judge, New York Giants
Pros: Alabama’s Nick Saban called Judge, his former pupil, “one of the brightest young coaches in our profession.” Belichick, his New England mentor, noted: “Joe can probably coach any position on the field.” Judge threw some off with his white-knuckle, take-no-prisoners introductory presser, but Giants heavies — and swooning general manager Dave Gettleman — believe their new coach is exactly what the franchise needs. I have no problem with Judge operating previously as special teams coordinator. While coach-needy squads tractor beam toward hot, young play-callers, Judge’s role required him to maximize the lower third of the roster while engaging with personnel and staffers on both sides of the ball. It worked for John Harbaugh. From a timing angle, Judge is in a better place than New York’s previous two coaches now that ownership’s ponderous Eli Manning fetish has given way to young passer Daniel Jones atop an offense fueled by star runner Saquon Barkley and a handful of promising pieces to build off.
Cons: The defense — a flaming mess — is now under the watch of untested ex-Dolphins coordinator Patrick Graham. In a division stocked with Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys, Ron Rivera’s Redskins and Doug Pederson’s resilient Eagles, Judge will have his hands full from wire to wire. His no-nonsense persona will delight Big Apple media types when New York prevails, but those same scribes will pen words of fury if Judge struggles. Another item: Will his messaging translate with millennial millionaires? Plenty of unknowns here.
Mike McCarthy, Dallas Cowboys
Pros: Armed with a stellar 125-77-2 career mark, McCarthy is an old-school warhorse armed with a Super Bowl ring. His heavily publicized “growth year” away from football came doused in self-reflection, leading to a flurry of interviews and the hand of Jerry Jones. This feels like a fit. McCarthy brings the requisite skills to grow Dak Prescott under center and make the most of a talented Cowboys roster. It’s encouraging that McCarthy is open to keeping promising offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. The Cowboys job is a pressure-cooker unfolding under a white-hot national spotlight, but Jones has proven to be a patient owner. McCarthy has a strong opportunity to rise again.
Cons: McCarthy’s Q-rating crumbled in Green Bay as his offense grew stale and predictable while the rest of the league zoomed by. The “revamped” McCarthy sold himself by telling the Jones clan he pored through every snap of the Dallas campaign, only to admit that was a fib, saying: “I need to confess: I told Jerry I watched every play of the 2019 season. I wanted the job. You do what you gotta do, right?” I’m willing to chalk that up as a media-friendly anecdote, but questions loom: Has McCarthy truly evolved? What about his offense? If both prove true, the Cowboys have pulled off a well-fitting hire.
Matt Rhule, Carolina Panthers
Pros: Good vibes all around. Owner David Tepper swooped in to get his man, furnishing Rhule with a monster seven-year, $60 million deal. While some clubs form million-man committees and hire search firms to pinpoint the right coach, Tepper cut through the white noise to follow his North Star: Rhule’s juicy track record of transformation. We saw those powers at Baylor and Temple, where he raised embattled programs from the dead with flair and total buy-in from his players. Rhule’s ability to create an NFL program in his image is TBD, but with everyone on the same page, I like his chances. Solid ownership covers many sins.
Cons: As with any first-time NFL head coach, success will depend on Rhule’s ability to adapt. The newly minted face of the Panthers is skilled with the media — a natural talker — so the trick comes in selling his message during tough times. Rhule must also navigate the future of Cam Newton. A further challenge comes in gathering a top staff. It’s encouraging to have former Giants coach and ex-Jaguars football czar Tom Coughlin along for the ride in an advisory role.
Ron Rivera, Washington Redskins
Pros: It’s pretty simple with Rivera. You’re getting a proven leader with Super Bowl experience who brings immediate relevance to an organization long floating in the abyss. A former Bears linebacker, Rivera has the respect of his players, assistants and scouts. This is a high-character figurehead who crafted multiple playoff runs minus off-the-field drama from his charges. On paper, the hire is nothing short of a coup for the Redskins.
Cons: Rivera’s 76-63-1 regular-season mark doesn’t touch McCarthy’s, thanks to six losing seasons during his Panthers run. In Washington, larger concerns linger around a Redskins ownership group with one playoff win to show all century. The roster needs all sorts of help, and it’s entirely unclear if second-year passer Dwayne Haskins is the future. Rivera has plenty of work ahead to make this club a playoff contender. Will Redskins brass show the necessary patience?
Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns
Pros: Speaking with a few league types, Stefanski is viewed as intelligent, adaptable, a good leader and someone who benefitted from growing up around pro sports due to his father serving for years as an NBA executive. The former Vikings offensive play-caller inherits a talented roster that, on paper, fits with his scheme, from Baker Mayfield to Nick Chubb to Cleveland’s cadre of star receivers. The overt positive is Stefanski’s willingness to work alongside chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and fill-in-the-blank general manager. He apparently won the role over Josh McDaniels after buying into the team’s elusive “aligned” approach. Where that will lead is anyone’s guess.
Cons: The Browns have a sub-zero track record of formulating and sticking to one plan, swinging back and forth under ownership from a Sashi Brown-led, analytics-based experiment to John Dorsey’s meat-and-potatoes, football-guy approach. Nothing has stuck — or been given the chance to — but this latest Browns coaching search felt a tad different in its methodical but determined quest to marry said coach with an organizational vision. Reports of Stefanski needing to file game plans to DePodesta on Fridays before meeting for hours with ownership on Mondays are concerning, but anything Cleveland tries will be killed until the team wins. (UPDATE: Stefanski denied during an introductory news conference on Tuesday that he’ll have to present his game plans to the analytics team on Fridays.) The Browns have zero credibility — and a locker room filled with personalities — so Stefanski’s challenge ahead is immense.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.