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Jesse Pantuosco

Offseason Low Down

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Coaching Carousel: Last Call

Thursday, January 10, 2019


To steal a phrase from the immortal Ron Burgundy, that escalated quickly. A few stragglers remain but most of the heavy lifting has been done as six of the league’s head-coaching vacancies have already been filled. It’s been a hectic two weeks across football, but with the coaching carousel finally beginning to lose steam, now seems like as good a time as any to take inventory of the league’s new coaches. Shall we?

 

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

 

Arizona Cardinals

 

After sifting through a novel-length list of candidates, the Cardinals finally found their man in Kliff Kingsbury, whose comically-short tenure as USC’s offensive coordinator lasted all of 34 days. Kingsbury replaces Steve Wilks, who was let go after leading Arizona to its worst record in almost two decades. It’s been a rough stretch for the Cardinals, who have now cycled through three coaches in as many years. Kingsbury will have his work cut out for him guiding Arizona through its inevitable rebuild. He’ll be tasked with reinventing franchise quarterback Josh Rosen, who labored through a frustrating rookie campaign in 2018.

 

Kingsbury oversaw one of the most explosive offensives in college football during his time at Texas Tech, though he finished his six-year tenure in Lubbock with a losing record (35-40). Heralded as a quarterback whisperer, the 39-year-old has had a hand in developing several of the league’s top signal-callers including Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield (who later transferred to Oklahoma) and Case Keenum. Johnny Manziel and Davis Webb were also stars under Kingsbury’s tutelage.

 

Arizona’s decision to roll out the red carpet for Kingsbury continues a league-wide trend toward hiring young, offensive-minded head coaches. Former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Saints assistant/TEs coach Dan Campbell, former Dolphins and current Jets head coach Adam Gase and Rams QBs coach Zac Taylor were also considered for Arizona’s vacancy, though obviously the higher-ups were most enticed by Kingsbury and his signature air-raid offense.

 

Atlanta Falcons

 

It didn’t take long for Atlanta to fill its vacant offensive coordinator position now occupied by former Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter. This will be Koetter’s second bite at the apple after previously serving as the Falcons OC from 2012-14. He’ll be filling the role left behind by Steve Sarkisian, who never quite got the hang of things during his turbulent two-year stay in Atlanta. Darrell Bevell was considered a strong candidate for Atlanta’s opening at OC based on his relationship with head coach Dan Quinn, who he coached with in Seattle, though obviously the Falcons went in a different direction. Bevell is still in the running for Jacksonville’s OC job, so at least he didn’t put all his eggs in one basket.

 

In addition to landing Koetter, the Falcons also replaced special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong (who was just hired for the same position in Tampa Bay) with Ben Kotwica while adding former Titans head coach Mike Mularkey as their new tight ends coach. This is Mularkey’s second go-round with Atlanta following a four-year stint as the team’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11. Meanwhile, the defensive coordinator seat in Atlanta will remain vacant with Quinn absorbing most of the day-to-day duties once held by Marquand Manuel, who was let go along with Sarkisian and Armstrong at season’s end. 

 

Cleveland Browns

 

Cleveland entertained the idea of an outside hire, but it didn’t take the Browns long to realize the best man for their vacant head coaching job was with them all along. Wednesday the Browns announced OC Freddie Kitchens as the team’s new head honcho, replacing Hue Jackson, who endured one of the most disastrous coaching tenures in league history during his three-year stay in Cleveland. A long-time position coach in the league, Kitchens thrived after taking over offensive coordinator responsibilities from Todd Haley in 2018, aiding in the development of top draft pick Baker Mayfield while also guiding the Browns to their best record (7-8-1) since 2007.

 

Interim head coach Gregg Williams was also interviewed for the permanent gig in Cleveland, though obviously Kitchens, a graduate of the Bruce Arians’ coaching tree, left a much stronger impression. Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski finished as the runner-up in Cleveland’s head-coaching search, joining Kitchens as the only other candidate to earn a follow-up interview. The Browns also checked in with Dan Campbell, Adam Gase, Colts DC Matt Eberflus, Patriots DC Brian Flores, Mike McCarthy, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels and Colts OC Nick Sirianni before narrowing their scope to Stefanski and Kitchens.

 

Denver Broncos

 

Cross another name off the list. The Broncos have their man and his name is Vic Fangio. He was the choice over fellow finalist Mike Munchak, who will return to his post as Pittsburgh’s offensive line coach. While most teams have been targeting younger, offensive-minded head coaches, the Broncos chose a different path, plucking Fangio from the Windy City, where he spent four years as Chicago’s defensive coordinator. The Bears were a juggernaut defensively under Fangio in 2018, yielding a league-low 283 points while also leading the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,280), interceptions (27) and total turnovers (36). Denver’s defense underachieved with Vance Joseph calling the shots but a quick turnaround should be in order with Fangio in charge.

 

Most expected the Broncos to pursue an offensive-leaning head coach, especially after struggling in that area last season, though obviously GM John Elway had a different plan in mind. While Fangio will take aim at improving the league’s 22nd-ranked defense, the offense will be helmed by Gary Kubiak, who is coming out of retirement to serve as Denver’s offensive coordinator. Kubiak, who stepped away from coaching due to health concerns two years ago, should take some of the burden off Fangio as he makes the leap from coordinator to head coach. Prior to landing Fangio, the Broncos also touched base with Brian Flores, former Colts coach Chuck Pagano and Zac Taylor. The Broncos kept tabs on Ravens coach John Harbaugh as well, though nothing came of that pipe dream.

 

Green Bay Packers

 

After a busy week of interviews, the first coaching domino finally fell Monday when Green Bay tapped Titans OC Matt LaFleur as the successor to Mike McCarthy, who spent 13 years atop the Packers’ coaching totem pole. A first-time head coach, LaFleur arrives in cheese country with just two years of NFL coordinating experience. LaFleur may not be a household name yet but he comes from a strong background, having worked with Kyle Shanahan at stops in Washington and Atlanta before eventually teaming up with offensive prodigy Sean McVay in Los Angeles. The 39-year-old is credited with developing Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff while also helping Matt Ryan see the light during his career-best 2016 campaign.

 

Aaron Rodgers was openly critical of McCarthy’s play-calling throughout his tenure so it will be interesting to see how he meshes with LaFleur, an up-and-comer with strong ties to both Shanahan and McVay, two of the most creative offensive minds of their generation. Green Bay also interviewed former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Dan Campbell, Saints OC Pete Carmichael, Brian Flores, Josh McDaniels, Mike Munchak and Chuck Pagano before landing on LaFleur. The Packers weren’t shy about their interest in Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, but the 44-year-old wasn’t willing to abandon his alma mater. LaFleur is still assembling his new coaching staff, though it’s believed Mike Pettine will be retained as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator.

 

Minnesota Vikings

 

It may be time for Kevin Stefanski to print up some new business cards. “Hey VistaPrint, can we drop the ‘interim’ label and just leave it as offensive coordinator?” And so begins Stefanski’s reign as the Vikings’ official offensive coordinator, a position he held for the final month of 2018 following John DeFilippo’s surprise exodus. Stefanski also drew interest as a head coach this offseason, making it to the final round of interviews with Cleveland before losing out to Todd Packer lookalike Freddie Kitchens.

 

While passing was the focal point of DeFilippo’s scheme, Stefanski preferred a more balanced-approach, hammering the rock with second-year bruiser Dalvin Cook while also spreading the field with 1,000-yard receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Of Stefanski’s 36 years on Earth, over a dozen have been spent in Minnesota, where the Vikings have employed the Penn alum since 2006. The former Ivy Leaguer has “future head coach” written all over him. The Vikings also considered Hue Jackson for their coordinator role, but most would agree they got it right with Stefanski.

 

New York Jets

 

After brief flirtations with more interesting candidates like Kingsbury and former Buccaneers OC Todd Monken, the Jets instead settled for a stroll down Retread Lane, handing the keys to ex-Dolphins coach Adam Gase. It’s not as egregious a hire as Mike McCarthy or Jim Caldwell would have been, though Jets fans were likely hoping for something flashier to sink their teeth into. Gase enjoyed some success at his first head-coaching stop but seemed strung out by the end of his Dolphins tenure, ostracizing many of his top players while routinely stirring the pot by engaging in petty locker room feuds. That type of brashness may not play well in the bright lights of New York City, though maybe a change of scenery is exactly what Gase needs.

 

While Gase’s unceremonious departure from Miami wasn’t what he envisioned for himself, the 40-year-old now has a chance to write a new chapter with impressive young quarterback Sam Darnold, who showed promise during his rookie year. Dolphins OC Dowell Loggains is expected to follow Gase to New York while there’s also been talk of a reunion with Vance Joseph, who served as the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator prior to landing his first head-coaching gig with Denver. If it’s not Joseph, the Jets would likely pivot to either Chuck Pagano or Gregg Williams at DC.

 

Before giving the thumbs up to Gase, the Jets almost chose another candidate, Baylor head coach Matt Rhule. The 43-year-old would have been an intriguing hire but Rhule backed out upon learning he couldn’t select his own assistants. Meanwhile, Mike McCarthy has decided to take the year off from coaching after being snubbed by both the Browns and Jets.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 

In Bruce Arians’ world, retirement means spending a year in the CBS broadcasting booth, publicly stumping for the head job in Cleveland (sometimes while on air), then bolting to Tampa to become the Buccaneers’ new head coach. The 66-year-old is not the up-and-comer we’re used to seeing teams hire but as retreads go, the Bucs couldn’t have done much better than Arians, a two-time Coach of the Year recipient who led Arizona to three winning seasons in his five years at the helm. Unlike relative newcomers LaFleur and Kingsbury, Arians brings a wealth of experience (over two decades in the league) to his new role. A Kangol-hat-wearing soundbite machine, Arians was a fan favorite throughout his stay in ‘Zona and should have no trouble charming the pants off his new fan base.

 

It’s no surprise that Arians’ new coaching staff in Tampa bares a close resemblance to the one he left behind in Arizona. He brought the band back together by hiring a slew of his former Cardinals assistants including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, run-game coordinator Harold Goodwin and pass-game coordinator Byron Leftwich. The Bucs also snatched up special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, who played for Arians when he coached at Temple in the 1980s. Rather than calling his own plays on offense, Arians will delegate that responsibility to Leftwich, a former quarterback who spent one of his 10 NFL seasons in Tampa Bay.

 

Widely touted for his aggressive offenses, Arians should pair well with gunslinger Jameis Winston, who has plenty to prove heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Because the Cardinals still owned his rights, the Bucs gifted Arizona a sixth-round pick as compensation for poaching Arians. Eric Bieniemy, Vikings DC George Edwards, Brian Flores and Cowboys DBs coach/pass-game coordinator Kris Richard also interviewed for Tampa’s opening, though Arians was always the front-runner to succeed Dirk Koetter as head coach.

 

STILL LOOKING

 

Cincinnati Bengals

 

The talent pool has thinned out considerably now that six of the league’s eight head coaching jobs have been filled, which means it’s time for the Bengals to kick their coaching search into high gear. Many of the names linked to Cincinnati are currently coaching in the postseason including Eric Bieniemy, Zac Taylor and Rams pass-game coordinator Shane Waldron. The Bengals could always circle back to them, but if they aren’t willing to wait, Todd Monken would be an excellent choice to succeed Marvin Lewis, who is finally moving on after 16 seasons atop Cincinnati’s chain of command. Hue Jackson and Vance Joseph have also interviewed for the Bengals’ opening, though Joseph could be eyeing a reunion with Adam Gase in New York while giving Jackson free reign would surely trigger Cincinnati’s frustrated fan base.

 

Miami Dolphins

 

The Dolphins are no closer than they were a week ago to finding a replacement for Adam Gase, who was shown the door after an often-frustrating three-year stay in Miami. With most of the top candidates off the board, the Fins may have to get creative. That could mean rolling the dice on a first-time head coach like Brian Flores or Kris Richard. Mike Munchak and Saints DC Dennis Allen have also been mentioned as possibilities, though there’s been no indication the Dolphins are anywhere close to making a decision. With a rebuild looming, prospective coaches have not been overly eager to charter Miami’s sinking ship.  



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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