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SQ Conversations: Which Rookie Head Coach Will Have The Most Success This Year?


Adrian and Jack take a look at this year’s rookie head coaches.

Last year, there were five rookie head coaches in the NFL. Ben McAdoo of the New Giants, Adam Gase of the Miami Dolphins, and Dirk Koetter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all produced winning seasons. Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles finished slightly short with seven wins, and Hue Jackson and the Browns … well, it can’t all be good.

This year, another five teams will be employing rookie head coaches. The Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, and San Francisco 49ers all find themselves in uncharted territory at head coach. All of these new hires have potential to succeed next season.

Two of SQ’s NFL writers, Adrian Nelson and Jack Tolman, discuss which rookie head coach they think will have the most success this year.

Adrian: Sean McDermott is one of the most talented, young, defense-minded coaches in the NFL. After stops with two franchises as the defensive coordinator, McDermott now has his first head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills and the unenviable task of ending the longest current postseason drought in the league for the once-proud franchise which has failed to even appear in the playoffs since 1999, 17 long seasons ago.

Since McDermott first became a defensive coordinator in 2009 with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009, his defenses have finished in the top half of the league seven out of eight seasons, including four top-10 finishes and three top-3 finishes. 

         Team (Year)          Offensive DVOA Rank
PHI (2009)3rd
PHI (2010)11th
CAR (2011)32nd
CAR (2012)11th
CAR (2013)3rd
CAR (2014)15th
CAR (2015)2nd
CAR (2106)10th

He has clearly demonstrated the ability to produce elite defenses, and if he can bring that back to Buffalo, he will have a major impact this season. Jack, what are your thoughts?

Jack: While I think McDermott has the tools and skills to be a very successful coach in the NFL, Vance Joseph enters a situation like no other: with the Denver Broncos capable of competing right out of the gate.

With Kyle Shanahan and other coaches with more accolades to their names still available, John Elway‘s selection of Vance Joseph seemed peculiar. The longtime defensive backs coach has only one year as a defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins under his belt, yet in that year, he proved himself enough to land the most sought-after job in the league. 

This hiring reminds me a lot of the Pittsburgh hiring of Mike Tomlin in 2007. Tomlin was a longtime defensive backs coach, and a defensive coordinator for the Vikings for a year. Tomlin entered a situation with a team a year removed from winning the Super Bowl, just like Joseph, and despite a mediocre season in 2016, the Broncos are well equipped with talent just like the 2008 Steelers. The ‘08 Steelers went 10-6 under Tomlin in their first year and won the Super Bowl with him the following season.


With the defensive talent and the offensive potential that the Broncos boast, there is no reason that Joseph can’t accomplish exactly what Tomlin did in his first years in Pittsburgh.

Adrian: While I agree that in Denver Joseph will be coaching a very talented defense, he just left a team with a well-stocked defense that could be said to have under-performed. The Miami Dolphins finished 19th in defensive DVOA last season. The Dolphins had three great players in safety Reshad Jones, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and defensive end Cameron Wake, who finished last year with Pro Football Focus grades of 88.5, 88.4, and 87.4 respectively. The fact that despite this talent the Dolphins still finished in the bottom half of the league defensively raises concerns.

I also disagree that Sean McDermott is in a meaningfully worse position than Joseph. Last year, the Bills finished the season with a +21 point differential despite finishing third in their division. Meanwhile, the Broncos finished +36. So while better than the Bills, the gap between the two teams last season is not as large as one would think.

In addition to that, by definition, McDermott has the opportunity to make a large impact. Denver finished last year ranked first in defensive DVOA whereas Buffalo finished ranked 26th. When McDermott is able to turn this bad defense into a competent one, the impact will be much greater than Joseph attempting to keep the Broncos at the peak level of 2016. That being said, do you think that Joseph will be able to improve Denver in any other way?

Jack: I think that Joseph can absolutely improve Denver. As Elway stated when he introduced him, “his ability to get the most out of players are off the charts.” He’s had years of experience as a defensive backs coach and walks into a situation with potentially the best defensive backs group in the entire league. He’s a motivator and has a keen ability to work with players.

Joseph will also be overseeing a quarterback competition between two very young and promising candidates. While his coaching career has been spent on the defensive side of the ball, Vance was a quarterback at the University of Colorado and has experience in the position. With his knowledge of both sides of the ball, he has a unique perspective that not every coach can bring to the table. Having that skill set makes him the most suitable candidate to maintain an elite defense and help mold an offense behind one of the young quarterbacks.

Additionally, let’s take a look at your argument about the fact that the Dolphins ranked 19th in defensive DVOA last season. The season before that, in 2015, the Dolphins ranked 29th in defensive DVOA, which provides evidence that his addition improved the state of that unit.

Now, back to your point on whether or not Joseph will improve the team. As he said himself, “This isn’t a rebuild, it’s a reboot.” Joseph will definitely improve the team, as I’ve pointed out above, but he doesn’t need to do so catastrophically. He’s had experience working with his predecessor Gary Kubiak in Houston and has the tools to continue his success.

Adrian: I hear what you’re saying, but again I just think it’s hard to realistically improve a defense that is already at the top of the NFL. As far as his offensive experience goes, maybe you’re right, but something tells me that playing quarterback in college does not necessarily prepare you to coach and install a top-flight offense.

McDermott likely recognizes his lack of experience on that side of the ball and will put trust in the hands of his newly hired offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. For a rookie head coach, Dennison will provide someone that McDermott can lean on as he has spent the last 16 years as either an offensive line coach or offensive coordinator.

McDermott is also trusting Dennison to revitalize the offense. Last year Tyrod Taylor got hit a lot, and it wasn’t just because of designed runs. Taylor led the league in getting sacked last year with 42, just under three per game, despite missing a game last season. Dennison will bring into town the West Coast Offense, which is built off short routes and quick decisions for the quarterback. He will also help install a zone running scheme concept which has proven to be very effective in the NFL and can add another wrinkle to a dangerous Buffalo running game.

USA TODAY Sports: Kevin Hoffman

The consensus great offseason that the Bills had is also a boon. They were able to bolster their secondary and receiving corps through free agency and the drafting of WR Zay Jones, and even made an underrated acquisition in Mike Tolbert, replacing the loss they suffered the backfield with Gillislee and giving them a great blocking fullback, a staple of the zone blocking scheme. A healthy Tyrod and revamped weapons could make the Bills a real threat on that side of the ball.

Jack: I’ll admit that Vance Joseph’s playing career as a quarterback in college likely won’t translate to him being able to completely revamp the Broncos offense, but it’s not like he needs to do that alone. This offseason, the Broncos hired former San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy to be their new offensive coordinator.

McCoy actually used to be the offensive coordinator for the Broncos before he took the job with the Chargers, and there’s a reason they are bringing him back. McCoy helped revitalize a struggling Broncos offense in 2008 and in his first year on the job, he helped then quarterback Kyle Orton have a career year. In his second season, the Broncos’ offense ranked seventh in the league and Orton ranked fourth in the league in passing yards per game.

When the team drafted Tim Tebow in 2011, McCoy completely changed the face of the Broncos offense in a year to fit Tebow’s style and the Broncos led the league in rushing yards that season. His successes as an offensive coordinator prompted more than five teams to reach out to him about a head coaching job where he chose San Diego. While he didn’t succeed as a head coach, he’s a proven offensive coordinator and will be a huge help to the Broncos offense.

Again, I don’t think it’s really Joseph’s job to improve the defense too much. As you said, the defense is already the top dog in the league. I think it’s more Joseph’s job to sustain its success and I believe he’s the perfect guy to do that. Going back to my Tomlin comparison, the 2008 Steelers’ defense didn’t need to be improved. It just needed to be sustained while improving the offense and that’s what he did. I believe that with Joseph’s defensive mindset and the help of McCoy’s offensive experience, the team could make strides toward becoming more balanced which will ultimately lead to more success.

This is a team that can make the playoffs this year. Quarterback Trevor Siemian now has a year of starting under his belt, and with the addition of players like rookie Garett Bolles to bolster the offensive line and running back Jamaal Charles to add to the run game, the team is stocked with enough talent to surprise some people. Again, it’s not necessarily that Joseph is the best coach, but he’s walking into the best situation and he has the credentials and skill-set to really succeed in it.

Adrian: You’re right that Joseph finds himself in a good fit. He’s on a team that has had success recently and is built around defense, providing him the personnel he needs to show off what is his greatest coaching strength. That being said, when we started this piece, and I know it was a while ago (bear with us readers) we said which rookie coach will make the most success, and to me success means the biggest impact.

Keeping a number one defense at the top of its game is just not the same level of impact that McDermott will have.

It’s not the same level of impact of turning a mediocre defense on a team not too far away from making the playoffs into a good or great one. It’s not the same level of impact of instituting a offensive scheme that protects a very underrated quarterback in Tyrod Taylor. It’s not the same level of impact as revamping the talent at key positions to sure up what were massive roster deficiencies. It’s not the same level of impact of potentially ending a 17 season postseason drought.

Rex Ryan is a good coach. That being said, he is also notorious for having teams that are undisciplined and inconsistent. Last season, the seven-win Bills had four losing streaks of two or more games. They were also the 13th-most penalized defense in the NFL. McDermott’s Carolina Panthers were the least penalized defense. McDermott brings a focus and attention to detail that was lacking under the old administration, and is the right guy to get the Bills a winning season.

USA TODAY Sports: Christopher Hanewinckel

Jack: You’re right that it might be difficult for Joseph to improve a top tier defense, but the Broncos, as a team, still missed the playoffs, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

The offense has been bolstered with help being added to the offensive line and running game. The addition of Jamaal Charles brings in a player who has averaged 5.5 yards per carry throughout his career and can split the load with a reliable CJ Anderson. The receiving corps still consist of one of the best duos in the league with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders who both registered over 1,000 yards receiving last season. With Trevor Siemian having gained more experience, and the addition of Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator, this offense is ready to carry their weight.

USA TODAY Sports: Ron Chenoy

Coaching changes can often create turmoil and distress, but Joseph’s entrance, having worked hand-in-hand with Kubiak for years, could wind up being shockingly smooth. While I do believe McDermott could improve Buffalo, it’s likely that they’ll find themselves a middling team once again, forever cast under the Patriots (and Dolphins now).

With Joseph and Denver, the sky’s the limit. They are in an extremely tough division, but the window is wide open for them to seize the opportunity. Yes, there is absolutely a chance that the Broncos for find themselves stuck below the heavyweights of the AFC West, but they have the potential and talent to go as far as hoisting the Lombardi.

Edited by Emily Berman.

How many rookie head coaches were there in 2015?
Created 6/14/17
  1. Zero
  2. One
  3. Two
  4. Three

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