There were eight NFL head coaches replaced this offseason; seven of the replacements have never been head coaches at the NFL level: Bruce Arians (Arizona), Doug Marrone (Buffalo), Marc Trestman (Chicago), Rob Chudzinksi (Cleveland), Gus Bradley (Jacksonville), Chip Kelly (Philadelphia), and Mike McCoy (San Diego). The other new coach, Andy Reid, spent the previous 14 seasons as the head coach of the Eagles and doesn’t count as a rookie head coach because this isn’t his first NFL head coaching job. Here I will take a look at the three NFL rookie head coaches with the best chances at first-year success.
Doug Marrone, Buffalo Bills
I’ve already written an article about Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and what he needs to do to have a successful first year. A big part of his potential for success is dependent on Marrone and offensive coordinator/QB coach Nathaniel Hackett. The two of them need to help Manuel work on his accuracy, decision-making, and comfortability in the pocket, as well as implementing an offensive scheme that will give him the best opportunity to thrive. Marrone’s legacy will be tied to the QB he drafted in the first round, when most didn’t grade him that high. Marrone had plenty of success with now Giants QB Ryan Nassib when the two were at Syracuse, and Marrone seems even more enthusiastic at Manuel’s potential.
Looking at the Bills’ roster, I believe they have the talent to win at least seven games (Panthers, at Jets, at Browns, Jets, at Buccaneers, at Jaguars, Dolphins). Manuel, RB C.J. Spiller, and WR Stevie Johnson all have the skill and speed to run a successful fast-paced offense, as long as they can learn to co-exist and work together quickly. The defense has talent, especially in Mario Williams and Jairus Byrd, but they need to play to their potential, not allowing opposing offenses to push them around nearly as much as they did in 2012.
Schedule-wise, opening and closing the season against the Patriots will be brutal – can Marrone out-coach Brady and Belichick? – but it leaves the middle 14 games looking much better in comparison. Other tough matchups include games at home against the Ravens and Bengals, a game at the Steelers, and a “home” game in Toronto against the Falcons. Make no mistake; the Bills are not a playoff team yet. But Marrone definitely has the overall coaching experience (20 years at a mix of NCAA and NFL levels, 4 as a head coach at Syracuse) to help them make serious progress. Playing two games per season against the Jets will surely help.
Marc Trestman, Chicago Bears
Don’t forget that the Bears were a 10-win team in 2012. They may not have made the playoffs, but they showed that they have the talent to win more games than many teams. Teams with double-digit wins don’t typically change head coaches, unless that coach opts to retire, but Chicago’s management couldn’t deal with any more almost-good-enough seasons with Smith at the helm. Trestman is an interesting hire, as he’s had success both as a coordinator in the NFL and as a head coach in the CFL (where he won two Grey Cups [league championships] with the Montreal Alouettes). He was the OC for the Oakland Raiders when they made it to Super Bowl XXXVII and QB Rich Gannon won the NFL MVP Award. He also coached the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player, QB Anthony Calvillo, in 2008 and 2009. This is his first time as an NFL head coach, though, and he’ll absolutely face more pressure and scrutiny than he did when he coached Montreal.
There is plenty of differing opinion when it comes to Bears starting QB Jay Cutler, but most would agree that the Bears are in the best position of the teams with rookie head coaches when it comes to the QB position. Michael Vick (Philadelphia) and Phillip Rivers (San Diego) are above average, but would you really have either one of them than Cutler? I personally wouldn’t, as a coach or as a fan. Cutler isn’t incredibly accurate, but he’s a solid starter. He’s not elite, but I put him in the top 20 of NFL QBs (I wouldn’t put Vick or Rivers that high at this point in their careers). The main thing when it comes to Cutler is whether or not he can control his attitude; I think he can with Trestman coaching him. In addition to Cutler, the Bears also have elite WR Brandon Marshall, who had T-2nd-most receptions (118), 3rd-most receiving yards (1508), and T-4th-most receiving TDs (11) in 2012. Throw in RB Matt Forte, who has 5,300+ rushing yards and 26 rushing TDs in his first five NFL seasons, along with 2300+ receiving yards and 9 receiving TDs.
Obviously, the Bears have a tougher schedule than most, having to play their fellow NFC North teams two times each, but it’s actually fairly difficult even after the six divisional games. The Bears face the AFC North and the NFC East this season, which is no simple task. Thankfully, they play many of their hardest games at home, but matching their 10 wins from last season may be asking too much of Trestman in his first year. Is it possible? Sure. But I think 8-8 or 9-7 is much more likely.
Chip Kelly, Philadelphia Eagles
How will Chip Kelly’s crazy-fast, high-scoring Oregon offense translate to the NFL? Will he use the exact same offensive scheme, or will he make major adjustments? Can the Eagles’ players mesh well enough with each other and with their new coach to contend for a playoff spot? I think the Eagles are the most intriguing team heading into 2013. Chip Kelly had an incredible amount of success at the University of Oregon, even if he never won a BCS Championship. He was in such a good position there that he almost didn’t take the Eagles’ head coaching position. But the thought of taking the NFL by storm and leading the Eagles back to glory was too much to pass up. The Eagles’ management is certainly happy to have gotten their man, but will the move lead to success for the Eagles, or will Kelly be the next bust in a line of college football head coaches who failed to make the successful leap to the NFL? I think he has what it takes to succeed. Quickly.
I said earlier that Michael Vick isn’t a top-20 NFL QB, and I stand by that, mostly because of injuries. One positive for the Eagles is their backup QB situation. They may not be one of the three that I highlighted in my earlier article about best and worst backup QB situations, but Nick Foles and Matt Barkley can both be serviceable backups (Foles has already proven that he can be; I think Barkley will prove so soon enough). They also have speedsters LeSean McCoy at running back and DeSean Jackson at wide receiver/returner to help run a quick offense and special teams, much like Kelly did at Oregon.
The Eagles don’t have one of the easiest schedules in 2013, playing the NFC North and AFC West, in addition to their own NFC East, but because they finished last in the division, they play Arizona and Tampa Bay as their two other opponents. I see them winning eight or nine games but just missing out on the playoffs. I definitely think Kelly is right for the Eagles, though, and I see him eventually leading the Eagles back to the Super Bowl.