By Don Banks | Oct. 5, 2018
With the season’s first quarter over and October football in the NFL upon us, just enough time has passed to form some meaningful perceptions about the performance of the league’s seven new head coaches. As a whole, it was a brutal and inauspicious beginning for the newcomers, with their dismal 0-7 showing in Week 1 and a 3-11 mark after the first two weeks of action.
But the group at least has started to rebound and see some results of late, going 7-7 over the past two weeks to raise its collective won-loss record to 10-18 this season (.357). While there are soaring hopes in venues like Chicago and Tennessee, where Matt Nagy and Mike Vrabel, respectively, have generated positive early reviews, the current state of coaching affairs in Oakland and Arizona is rather dismal, portending long seasons of struggle.
On the theory that everything in the NFL can be power-ranked, let’s put the seven new members of the head-set crowd in order best to worst, based on their first month of game days.
1. Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears (3-1) — “The first-place Bears” … Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it, long-suffering Chicago fans? Nagy has delivered the goods as promised for the Bears, with the ex-Chiefs offensive coordinator invigorating their long-dormant offense while developing the game of second-year franchise quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Last week against the hopelessly out-matched Bucs at Soldier Field, Trubisky turned in the game of his young career, throwing for six touchdowns passes and 354 yards without an interception in Chicago’s 48-10 rout.
Trubisky entered the game with only nine career scoring passes, and he threw five in the first half alone against Tampa Bay, winding up with touchdowns to five different pass-catchers. Trubisky’s breakout game aside, the most impressive to me is that Nagy had his team ready to rebound after disastrously giving away its opener at Green Bay. The Bears’ current three-game winning streak — they’re on a bye in Week 5 — is their longest since September 2013, and Chicago’s 27.8 points per game is tied for eighth best in the NFL. That’s a world different from the John Fox coaching era.
2. Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans (3-1) — The Titans are about as pretty as a week-old bruise, but Vrabel’s resourceful club has quickly taken on his tough-minded and tenacious personality in claiming first place in the competitive AFC South. Despite quarterback injuries to both starter Marcus Mariota and backup Blaine Gabbert, Tennessee has already beaten two of the teams that made last season’s final four in the playoffs — Jacksonville and Philadelphia — and the Titans are a strong 2-0 in the division, reminding the Jaguars that the road to winning the AFC South for now goes through Nashville.
Tennessee lost that bizarre twice-delayed-by-lighting opener in Miami, but since then they’ve steadily improved, beating the Texans, Jaguars and Eagles in succession, despite not having a fully healthy Mariota to lean on. It’s not only that the Titans are winning, it’s how they’re winning, learning to finish close games. All three of their victories have been secured by a mere three points, including the 26-23 gut-check overtime win at home against Philadelphia on Sunday, a game in which they trailed by 14 in the third quarter and by three in the extra period.
3. Frank Reich, Indianapolis Colts (1-4) — The Colts record doesn’t reflect how competitive they’ve been almost every week. They lost by 9 in their opener to visiting Cincinnati, but had the ball 15 yards shy of a game-winning touchdown in the final minute before a Jack Doyle fumble ruined the comeback. They won decisively at Washington, then dropped a four-point game at Philadelphia that ended with them on the Eagles’ 4-yard line. Last Sunday they let a winnable game slip away, falling 37-34 in overtime to visiting Houston, but they trailed 28-10 in the second half and still almost won.
Reich’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 from his own 43 late in overtime against Houston won him some derision in some quarters and praise in others, but his locker room loved the moxie and confidence it showed. With a defense that’s playing better than expected, and Andrew Luck rounding back into top form — he threw for a career-best 464 yards and four touchdowns against the Texans — Reich has done solid work despite some crippling offensive tackle injuries. Remember, other than the Giants (3-13), no team that replaced their head coach last offseason had a worse 2017 record than the 4-12 Colts.
4. Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions (1-3) — I’m giving Patricia the nod over fellow No. 4 slot contender Pat Shurmur of the Giants based largely on Detroit’s Week 3 domination of New England on Sunday Night Football, one of the season’s highlight wins thus far. The Lions probably should have won at Dallas in Week 4, but a late defensive meltdown gave the Cowboys just enough real estate to kick the winning field goal at the gun.
The Lions started atrociously with that 48-17 embarrassment at home to the Jets and rookie quarterback Sam Darnold on Monday Night Football. But it’s worth noting that Patricia’s players responded to him after that, and despite reports to the contrary, they clearly support him based on that raucous celebratory post-game locker room footage that surfaced after the upset of the Patriots. This is a team that has underachieved thus far, but Patricia’s Lions appear to have steadied themselves.
5. Pat Shurmur, New York Giants (1-3) — The Giants were a train wreck on offense last season, and Shurmur, along with all the offseason upgrades, was supposed to cure the malaise factor. Not so far. New York has scored more than 18 points only once in four games, and they’re averaging 18.2 points and 314 yards per game, producing the league’s 25th-ranked offense. Much as they have been in recent years, the Giants are inconsistent and struggle to move the chains with any regularity.
Quarterback Eli Manning hasn’t been able to stretch the field in the passing game and has completed only three of 12 passes for 20 yards or more. Some games New York prioritizes targeting star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and some games it seems to forget about him at times. Same with No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley in the running game. The Giants have been uneven in committing to feed Barkley the ball, and that has led to them not being able to do anything particularly well on offense. With three tough games coming up — at Panthers, home against the Eagles, at the Falcons — New York’s season is in danger of slipping away if the trends don’t reverse.
6. Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders (1-3) — Gruden deserves a near-bottom ranking if only for the tone-setting Khalil Mack trade, a deal that seems destined to haunt the Raiders all season long and well beyond. But when you add Gruden’s obvious penchant for mind games, be it with quarterback Derek Carr early in the season or general manager Reggie McKenzie of late, the atmosphere in Oakland seems a bit toxic and losing is only going to accentuate that.
The Raiders got a must-have win in overtime at home on Sunday against Cleveland, but it felt quite fortuitous in a lot of ways, given some calls that went against the Browns. Oakland’s lack of being able to finish games was glaring in the season’s first three weeks, as halftime leads turned into losses to the Rams, Broncos and Dolphins. That’s a fatal flaw that usually has its roots in a deficit of coaching, and Gruden has exhibited few skills in being able to stop the bleeding once it starts.
7. Steve Wilks, Arizona Cardinals (0-4) — The Cardinals have been hide-your-eyes bad on offense in the season’s first month, and there are already fans calling for Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to both be sent packing. That would be foolish, but it’s clear that Arizona has to see an uptick to at least mediocrity with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen now inserted into the starting lineup and preparing to make his second start.
“I think our offense is getting ready to flourish,’’ Wilks said this week, and let’s assume he wasn’t whistling past the graveyard as the only winless coach in the NFL. The Cardinals were deathly predictable and boring with Sam Bradford under center, and at least Rosen has shown flashes of being able to spark an offense that ranks 32nd overall with just 208.5 yards per game on average. Arizona’s 9.2 points per game isn’t just dead last in the league, it’s more than three points per game worse than No. 31 Buffalo (12.5). It’s only early October, but things are already getting desperate in the desert.
For the record, here’s the order these coaches appear in HeadCoachRanking.com’s current overall 2018 grades:
Matt Nagy – 7.6 (fourth)
Mike Vrabel – 7.0 (tied-14th)
Frank Reich – 6.7 (tied-21st)
Pat Shurmur – 6.7 (tied-21st)
Matt Patricia – 6.6 (tied-24th)
Jon Gruden – 6.6 (tied-24th)
Steve Wilks – 5.7 (32nd)