3 Key Things to Know About the 2021 Coaching Cycle

The 3 key things to know about the 2021 coaching cycle. 

The 3 Key Things to Know about the 2021 Coaching Cycle

Another coaching carousel is in the books, and in many ways, it looked relatively normal. In most NFL seasons, six to eight head coaches get replaced, and upwards of 40%-50% of offensive and defensive coordinators are swapped. And that’s precisely what happened this offseason:

  • 7 new head coaches
  • 14 new offensive coordinators (on 13 teams)
  • 14 new defensive coordinators
  • 11 new special teams coordinators
  • 7 new general managers


Point #1 – Inexperience Abounds

Even NFL owners are guilty of liking shiny, new toys. Hiring first-time or inexperienced coaches has risks, but it also lets owners and fans fantasize about landing the “next great coach.” This hiring cycle was chock full of inexperience.

  • All seven head coaches are first-timers – Sure, Urban Meyer has three college national championships, but this is his first time coaching at the NFL level, in any capacity. The other six are all getting their first shots but have various degrees of NFL experience. Chargers hire Brandon Staley was a defensive coordinator for just one year. Falcons coach Art Smith was only an offensive coordinator for two years. Nick Sirianni had three years as an OC, while Robert Saleh was a defensive coordinator for four seasons. Texans coach David Culley is 65 years old and has 40+ years of coaching experience, but he’s never been an NFL coordinator, much less a head coach. Finally, Dan Campbell has never been a coordinator.
  • Half of the new offensive coordinators are first-timers – Marcus Brady, Klint Kubiak, Mike LaFleur, Mike McDaniel, Dave Ragone, Eric Studesville, and Shane Waldron are all handling OC duties for the first time. Matt Canada technically fits the bill, too, but he was the offensive coordinator for seven different college programs before his Steelers hire.
  • 8 of the defensive coordinators are first-timers – Shane Bowen, Joe Cullen, Sean Desai, Jonathan Gannon, Aaron Glenn, Renaldo Hill, DeMeco Ryans, and Jeff Ulbrich will be coordinating defenses for the first time in 2021.
  • Play-calling experience need not apply (unless you’re in Jacksonville) – Some head coaches call their own plays, while others delegate to the OC. Based on what we know currently, there will be new play-callers for 11 teams this year. Those 11 play-callers have a combined 16 years of NFL play-calling experience, but even that’s misleading because 10 of those 16 years belong to Darrell Bevell. After Bevell, Art Smith and Joe Lombardi are the most experienced play-callers, with two seasons each.

Table: 2021 Play-Caller Hires, Ranked by Prior Experience

Coach Years Exp Teams
Darrell Bevell 10 3
Art Smith 2 1
Joe Lombardi 2 1
Anthony Lynn 1 1
Todd Downing 1 1
Nick Sirianni 0 0
Eric Studesville / George Godsey 0 0
Klint Kubiak 0 0
Mike LaFleur 0 0
Matt Canada 0 0
Shane Waldron 0 0
Total 16 7
Average 1.5 0.6
Average w/o Bevell 0.6 0.4

Point #2 – Beware of Grading Hires

It’s always fun to dissect coaching changes, and there’s certainly value to the process, but where I think the process falls short is when we assign letter grades to each hire before they’ve had a day on the job. The appeal of giving grades is clear, but it’s not predictive and doesn’t help anyone win fantasy championships. History tells us predicting the outcome of a head coaching change weeks after the hire is a statistical train wreck. Too often, we base our gut reactions on factors that aren’t highly correlated to success in new roles. Mike Vrabel was a defensive coordinator for one season before his hiring in Tennessee. His Texans defense ranked 32nd out of 32 teams. Nothing about his unit’s statistical success as a coordinator hinted at what an excellent head coach he would make. One of his generation's best head coaches, Sean Payton, lost his play-calling duties mid-season in two separate stops as an offensive coordinator. Here are the consensus rankings for the 2016, 2017, and 2018 cohorts, and their respective fates to put a finer point on this.

2016 (Combining CBS and ESPN consensus polling)

  1. Hue Jackson (CLE) – Fired midway through his fourth season after a woeful 11-44-1 record
  2. Chip Kelly (SF) – Done after a single 2-14 season
  3. Adam Gase (MIA) – Fired after going 23-25
  4. Dirk Koetter (TB) – Fired after going 19-29
  5. Ben McAdoo (NYG) – Fired midway through his second season, finished with a 13-15 record
  6. Doug Pederson (PHI) – Fired after the 2020 season but went 43-37-1 and led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory

Reaction: An absolute disastrous set of coaching rankings. Chip Kelly was viewed as a scapegoat in Philadelphia and a no-brainer for the 49ers, while his replacement Doug Pederson was named the worst head coach in the NFL in an infamous preseason poll. Pederson ended up winning a Super Bowl, and Kelly is struggling to get UCLA to Bowl games. Meanwhile, Hue Jackson won just 11 games in nearly five seasons but was considered the best choice.

2017 (Combining CBS and ESPN consensus polling)

  1. Sean McVay (LAR) – 43-21 record with three playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl loss
  2. Kyle Shanahan (SF) – 29-35 with one outlier Super Bowl appearance
  3. Anthony Lynn (LAC) – 33-31 but fired after the 2020 season
  4. Vance Joseph (DEN) – Fired after going 11-21
  5. Sean McDermott (BUF) – 38-26 with three playoffs appearances, including an AFC Championship game
  6. Doug Marrone (JAX) – Fired after going 23-43

Reaction: The consensus got the top hire right; no one will argue McVay’s credentials after four seasons. But Kyle Shanahan as the No. 2? Sure, he went to a Super Bowl, but he’s won six or fewer games in his other three seasons. And Sean McDermott was widely panned, but he’s nipping at McVay’s heels right now and looks like a fantastic hire after last year’s playoff breakthrough.

2018 (Combining CBS and ESPN consensus polling)

  1. Jon Gruden (LV) – He’s gone 19-29 since the hire and missed the playoffs in all three seasons
  2. Matt Patricia (DET) – Fired after going 13-29-1
  3. Frank Reich (IND) – 28-20 with two playoff appearances
  4. Steve Wilks (ARI) – Fired after a single season (3-13)
  5. Matt Nagy (CHI) – 28-20 after three seasons, but on the hot seat
  6. Pat Shurmur (NYG) – Fired after going 9-23
  7. Mike Vrabel (TEN) – 29-19 with two playoff appearances, including an AFC Championship game

Reaction: Vrabel, ranked the worst of the seven hires, has been the most successful, and Reich and Nagy are close behind him. Meanwhile, Gruden has yet to have a winning season. Patricia, like many Bill Belichick assistants, was lauded but ultimately failed.

Point #3 – It’s (Still) All About Offense

Offensive production has been on an upswing for years, thanks to a combination of innovative schemes and rules changes that heavily favor offenses. As the league seemingly pushes for more points – perhaps believing more scoring equals increased fan interest and viewership – team owners have followed suit. There have been 39 head-coaching hires in the last six years. A stunning 28 of the 39 hires have been offensively-minded coaches. This cycle is no different, as five of the seven openings went to offensive coaches.

  • 2021 (5-of-7) – Dan Campbell, David Culley, Urban Meyer, Nick Sirianni, Art Smith
  • 2020 (3-of-5) – Mike McCarthy, Matt Rhule, Kevin Stefanski
  • 2019 (6-of-8) – Bruce Arians, Adam Gase, Kliff Kingsbury, Freddie Kitchens, Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor
  • 2018 (4-of-7) – Jon Gruden, Matt Nagy, Frank Reich, Pat Shurmur
  • 2017 (4-of-6) – Anthony Lynn, Doug Marrone, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan
  • 2016 (6-of-6) – Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Chip Kelly, Dirk Koetter, Ben McAdoo, Doug Pederson

For more analysis of the coaching carousel, be sure to listen to our Footballguys podcast, The Audible:

On the Couch with Sigmund Bloom and Jason Wood (2/24/21)
On the Couch with Sigmund Bloom and Jason Wood (2/11/21)
The Audible with Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom (2/4/21)

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