It took until the week before the Super Bowl, but after a hectic month of moving parts, the NFL has finally filled all nine of its head coaching vacancies. This year’s search carried an unusual amount of controversy with ex-Dolphins coach Brian Flores calling attention to troubling hiring patterns and unconscious biases that, for years, have put minority candidates at a disadvantage. And while progress has already been made on that front (see Lovie Smith and Mike McDaniel), don’t expect discussion of the league’s diversity woes to go away any time soon with Flores and other aggrieved coaches eager to expose the corruption and systemic racism that have plagued their sport far too long.
With each opening now accounted for, it’s time to hand out grades with this report card serving as a de facto recap of the 2022 hiring cycle, and all the drama that came with it.
Dennis Allen, New Orleans Saints: C
The Saints, who were thrown an enormous curve ball when Sean Payton announced his “retirement” (don’t be surprised if Payton pulls a 180 once the Cowboys inevitably sour on Mike McCarthy) halfway through the hiring cycle, opted for continuity, staying in-house by promoting Allen from defensive coordinator to head coach. No one would deny Allen has done a marvelous job grooming perennial Pro Bowlers Cameron Jordan, Marshon Lattimore and Demario Davis in recent years. But there’s not enough Febreze in the world to mask the overwhelming stench that still lingers from his disastrous term as Raiders head coach from 2012-14, imploding to the tune of eight wins and 28 losses (.222-win percentage). Humbled by that experience, Allen wouldn’t be the first coach to figure it out on his second try—just look at what Bill Belichick has accomplished in New England after failing early in his career with Cleveland. Then again, given the uncertainty surrounding the Saints’ quarterback situation (free agent Jameis Winston is still recovering from ACL surgery), disgruntled wide receiver Michael Thomas and now Alvin Kamara following his arrest in Vegas this past weekend, it’s possible Allen got the job only because no one else wanted it.
Brian Daboll, New York Giants: B-
The first question that comes to mind, amid the league’s recent PR nightmare, is was it worth It? Maybe that’s not fair to ask. Poor as the optics were, putting Brian Flores through what amounted to a “token” interview (an errant text message from Bill Belichick blew the Giants’ cover, revealing their plans to hire Daboll days before Flores’ scheduled interview), Daboll’s hiring became all but inevitable once the G-Men tapped buddy Joe Schoen as GM. The first-time head coach is credited with developing MVP candidate Josh Allen, who, though far more successful, offers many of the same athletic traits as current Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. Daboll has rubbed shoulders with some of the game’s best coaches, serving as an assistant under both Belichick and Nick Saban. Daboll’s proximity to a pair of coaching legends must count for something, though, at the end of the day, the 46-year-old is a career journeyman who’s held nine jobs with eight different teams (Giants, Bills, Patriots, Chiefs, Dolphins, Browns, Jets and the University of Alabama) since 2006. Daboll has, admittedly, surrounded himself with a slew of capable assistants including former Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.
Matt Eberflus, Chicago Bears: C
Joining current Eagles coach and fellow Colts alum Nick Sirianni as the second member of Frank Reich’s coaching tree, Eberflus oversaw one of the league’s better defenses throughout his time in Indianapolis (ninth-fewest points allowed in 2021), producing three Pro Bowlers this past season (Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner and Kenny Moore). Still, looking at the myriad of candidates who were interviewed for this position—Nathaniel Hackett, Byron Leftwich, Doug Pederson and Dan Quinn, to name a few—it’s hard not to feel a tinge of disappointment with fans understandably wondering, “Is this really the best we could do?” Throughout these hiring cycles, you’ll often see teams align with coaches perceived as the diametric opposite of whoever preceded them. That’s what the Bears did, swapping out offensive-minded Matt Nagy for a defensive-leaning coach in Eberflus. But after averaging the league’s sixth-fewest points per game last season, shouldn’t the Bears, at least for the sake of their rookie quarterback Justin Fields, have prioritized a coach with an offensive background instead?
Nathaniel Hackett, Denver Broncos: B
Not the subtlest hire, but if the Broncos’ ultimate goal is to land Aaron Rodgers, and potentially Davante Adams if the two come as a package deal, then bravo for landing Hackett, Rodgers’ offensive coordinator in Green Bay the past three seasons. While Hackett may, on the surface, seem like a mere pawn in a larger scheme to woo Rodgers, the 42-year-old has long been a sharp offensive mind, molded from coordinating stints in Green Bay, Jacksonville, Buffalo and Syracuse, serving on Doug Marrone’s staff for the latter three. Discovered by then-Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden (who was also a mentor to future NFL coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay) in 2006, Hackett inherits a talented skill corps headlined by first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, Courtland Sutton and North Carolina product Javonte Williams, all of whom carry Pro Bowl potential. Some might argue Hackett is the product of nepotism—his father, Paul, spent the better part of three decades as an NFL assistant and even enjoyed a spell as USC’s head coach in the late ‘90s. Regardless, Hackett should be a step up from Vic Fangio, who, even at the time, felt like a desperation hire.
Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphins: B+
In a Miami Herald story published shortly after his dismissal, Brian Flores was characterized as aloof and unapproachable, traits consistent with other Belichick proteges including Bill O’Brien, Joe Judge and Matt Patricia. And though Dolphins ownership may have been using the Herald as a mouthpiece, smearing Flores to justify his firing on the heels of consecutive winning seasons, Flores’ surly demeanor obviously rubbed some in the organization the wrong way. By contrast, McDaniel (who identifies as biracial), with his affable nature and quirky sense of humor, carries none of that baggage, serving as the perfect palette cleanser for a reeling franchise in desperate need of positivity. However, it takes a lot more than charm to win in this league and McDaniel arrives relatively unproven with no prior head coaching experience. That may invite skepticism, though Kyle Shanahan swears by McDaniel, having worked with him in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta and San Francisco. Many suspect the Dolphins were secretly targeting Jim Harbaugh (Brian Daboll, who coached Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama, was also a consideration), but as far as backup plans go, they don’t get much better than McDaniel, an Ivy Leaguer who sprouted from the same coaching tree as Shanahan, McVay, Robert Saleh and Matt LaFleur. It’s hard not to root for McDaniel, who overcame an alcohol dependency (and a 2016 rehab stint) en route to becoming one of the league’s most successful young coaches.
Josh McDaniels, Las Vegas Raiders: C+
McDaniels, an accomplished coordinator with six Super Bowl rings to his NFL credit, was judicious in choosing his second head coaching job, waiting over a decade for his next opportunity (unless you count his false start with Indianapolis in 2018, leaving the Colts at the altar in stunning fashion). Evidently, McDaniels needed more seasoning, lasting all of 28 games in Denver before leaving town with a bruised ego and whatever personal items he could carry with two hands. He may not have been ready then, but McDaniels should be now after years of honing his craft in New England alongside the greatest coach who ever lived, Bill Belichick. Still, this hiring feels like a betrayal of sorts with players reportedly upset the Raiders didn’t retain beloved interim coach Rich Bisaccia, a locker-room favorite who miraculously led Vegas to the playoffs after a harrowing season with countless distractions including the email scandal that cost Jon Gruden his job.
Kevin O’Connell, Minnesota Vikings: B
How wild is it that not one but TWO of Tom Brady’s former backups are now NFL head coaches (Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury also held the GOAT’s clipboard once upon a time)? After Jim Harbaugh badly overplayed his hand, arriving in ‘Sota as if the job was already his, the Vikings did what every team seems to do these days, plucking another branch off the Sean McVay coaching tree. Not only does O’Connell come with McVay’s stamp of approval (the spiky-haired kingmaker has also helped Brandon Staley, Zac Taylor and Matt LaFleur ascend to head coach status), but the 36-year-old has deservedly gained a reputation as a quarterback whisperer, coaxing a career-best season out of Matthew Stafford in 2021. O’Connell’s bonafides include a three-year stint in Washington, where he developed a relationship with current Vikings signal-caller Kirk Cousins. After leading Los Angeles to a Super Bowl appearance this season with a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in a few days’ time, there’s plenty to like about O’Connell, a promising up-and-comer with ties to two of the most brilliant offensive minds (McVay and Brady) to walk this Earth.
Doug Pederson, Jacksonville Jaguars: B+
Pederson seems to have been the Jaguars’ Plan B—Byron Leftwich (who some view as the eventual successor to Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay) reportedly didn’t have the stomach to share a building with GM Trent Baalke. But Leftwich’s loss is the Jaguars’ gain with Jacksonville lucking into a two-time Super Bowl champion (once as a player, once as a head coach) and one of the most respected coaches in football. Among the stronger appendages of the Andy Reid coaching tree (a head coach factory that’s produced prize pupils John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott), Pederson is best known for outwitting Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LII. You don’t get a statue made in your honor by playing it safe and Pederson has certainly been known to roll the dice, turning the tables on the mighty Patriots with one of the gutsiest play-calls you’ll ever see. Of course, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for Pederson in Philly—the 54-year-old saw his relationship with Carson Wentz deteriorate over time and may have lost the locker room when he bizarrely benched Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld in the 2020 season finale. But if anyone can breathe new life into Trevor Lawrence, who imploded with a league-worst 22 turnovers as a rookie, it’s Pederson, a former quarterback himself and enthusiastic proponent of Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
Lovie Smith, Houston Texans: D
Where to even start. After doing David Culley dirty by firing him after just one season (though $22 million is, admittedly, a pretty generous severance), the Texans had every intention of hiring Josh McCown, whose lone coaching experience came as a volunteer assistant at his sons’ high school. The only reason that didn’t come to fruition is because of Flores’ lawsuit and the poor optics it created, prompting their eventual pivot to Lovie Smith. You have to be a special kind of inept to A) try to replace a black coach who arguably overachieved with a grossly unqualified white candidate and B) go full galaxy brain by hiring Smith while making painfully obvious McCown is who they really wanted. There are no winners here, least of all Smith, who inherits one of the worst situations in football with a star quarterback (Deshaun Watson) who, on top of wanting nothing to do with Houston, is facing 23 lawsuits for alleged sexual misconduct. Smith is no slouch, earning Coach of the Year honors while leading the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance (where they would lose to Indianapolis) in 2006. But just as they did to Culley, the Texans have set him up to fail, and spectacularly at that. The Texans can pat themselves on the back all they want for hiring a minority coach, but asking Smith to captain a sinking ship isn’t progress—it’s downright cruel.