Ranking the NFL Coaching Hires

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

The 2023 NFL coaching cycle, barring any surprises, has come to an end.

While Black Monday had its fair share of bloodletting, the head coaching scene has barely changed too much. After 10 teams changed head coaches last year, only five made the change this time around, with three moving on before the regular season ended. The bloodbath this year seemed to focus more on coordinators, headlined by half of the league changing offensive coordinators alone.

This could make for an interesting 2024 coaching cycle, but we still have five coaching hires that need to be analyzed. They come from all across the coaching spectrum, ranging from hot prospects to a recent fire looking for a second chance to a legend stepping back on the sideline from the broadcast booth. While there are valid reasons to justify each hire, there are questions that need to be answered, Was the hire each team made the best possible fit at this point in time? What plan does the team have in mind? Was a better option available? All these questions will be answered in these rankings.

So did each team hire the right man for the job, or have they made a potentially costly mistake? Let’s find out.

5. Jonathan Gannon, Arizona Cardinals

In a vacuum, hiring Gannon made a ton of sense for the Cardinals. The Eagles defense was one of the most dominant units in the NFL this season, headlined by a league-leading 70 sacks and one of the best cornerback duos in Darius Slay and James Bradberry. He’s transformed the Eagles into a playmaking unit on defense, which was instrumental in getting the ball back to a high-octane offense (more on that side of the ball in a minute). His experience with defensive backs is fantastic for a team that has no bankable stars in the secondary outside of Budda Baker, and the sack number is music to the ears of a defense that will have a new-look pass rush, likely headlined by a top prospect in either Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

So why is Gannon in last? For starters, the Super Bowl left a lot to be desired for Gannon’s defense, which failed to record a single defensive stop on Kansas City in the second half. If the Cardinals were looking to fix the defense, someone like Brian Flores (the new Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator) or Lou Anarumo (Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator) would have made an equal amount of sense. Also, the offense might be worse than advertised for the Cardinals next season. Kyler Murray is expected to miss a good chunk of next season, DeAndre Hopkins’ PED suspension canceled out his no-trade clause and gives a rebuilding Arizona team a free chance to trade his contract, and recent acquisitions like Hollywood Brown and Rondale Moore are better receivers in Madden than in real life. This looks like a team that new GM Monti Ossenfort is already looking to hit the reset button on; is Gannon the best fit for this transition period?

I wanted to like this hire, but the Super Bowl performance has me thinking Gannon got taken on a year too soon. How the team looks in his first year could be crucial.

4. Frank Reich, Carolina Panthers

This feels like the Panthers copying the Jaguars’ strategy last season: hire a retread to serve as the antithesis to a college coach that failed to make the transition. To be fair, it worked for Doug Pederson and the Jaguars, who went on a tear late in the season that culminated in a massive comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers (a team that should have also made a new coaching hire, but that’s for another time.) Reich finds himself in a similar position, leading a team in a weak division after his previous stint with Indianapolis ended on harsh terms. Reich should be instrumental in working with a young quarterback, whether the Panthers elect to take a flier on Matt Corral or choose to draft one in April. Despite not having a franchise quarterback in Indy after Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement, Reich still managed to put together a respectable 40-33-1 record in five years.

The issue I have most with Reich is is that he finds himself in a similar situation to last year, where he had the Colts in position to take advantage of a weak division, only to falter and lose his job before the season was done. What makes new owner David Tepper think this would be any different? Would hiring someone like Shane Steichen, who has experience working with young quarterbacks and drum up more excitement, have made more sense? Rather, what was wrong with Steve Wilks? The Carolina interim coach and new San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator went 6-6 in the role and kept the Panthers in the playoff race, despite the team trading Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers at the trade deadline. Wilks clearly had the support of the players, so would it have made more sense to promote Wilks and bring in a brilliant offensive coordinator (Eric Bieniemy, perhaps)?

Reich shouldn’t deal with nearly as much chaos as he did in Indianapolis, which is fine. I just don’t know if this was the right hire yet.

3. Sean Payton, Denver Broncos

There’s no denying Payton’s credentials at this point. While the Broncos courted the likes of Jim Harbaugh and DeMeco Ryans, it’s arguable that they made the right decision to bring Payton along. What Payton specializes in is creative offense and a winning culture, both of which were severely lacking in Denver last season. A healthy offense should work wonders for Denver, but Payton’s most important undertaking will be the reclamation of Russell Wilson. Wilson looked lost at times last season, so Payton will need to be sure he and his franchise quarterback are on the same page. Losing Ejiro Evero to Carolina hurts, and Payton’s preferred choice for defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio already took a job in Miami prior to the hire, but it’s currently expected that the Broncos will bring in Rex Ryan to fill the position.

The thing with Payton is that he’s appropriate for the middle of the pack for a simple reason: he is the ultimate boom-or-bust proposition. Just a year after the Broncos landed Wilson in a massive deal, they put together another big package to acquire Payton from New Orleans. It’s hard to not come away from this thinking the Broncos are mortgaging their entire future on the idea that Payton can fix Wilson and bring the Broncos back to relevancy in a competitive AFC West. Kansas City isn’t going anywhere until either Patrick Mahomes or Andy Reid decline, the Chargers still have Justin Herbert and an impressive array of talent, and who knows what the Raiders will look like when they get their new quarterback? If the Payton-Wilson era fizzles out, the Broncos may have chained themselves to the divisional basement for a long time.

If Payton is exactly who the Broncos hope they are getting, that will go a long way toward re-establishing themselves as a threat. If not, the new era in Denver may be one Broncos fans hope to forget.

2. Shane Steichen, Indianapolis Colts

This hire almost belongs in first simply for the fact that Jim Irsay went against bringing on interim coach Jeff Saturday, despite him looking overmatched most games. Instead, they make arguably the most sensible hire for themselves and land one of the hottest coaching prospects in Steichen. Steichen’s track record goes back to the Chargers, where he played an instrumental role in Justin Herbert winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, his stock has only increased since going to the Eagles, where he took Jalen Hurts from a project at quarterback to a legitimate MVP candidate this season. In Indianapolis, he’ll get to work with a top running back in Jonathan Taylor, as well as a decent receiving corps with young targets like Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, and Jelani Woods.

The most important reason why the Steichen hire was huge for the Colts was their position at quarterback. After years of instability at the game’s most important position, the Colts have the chance to make a big move to land a top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft. Whether the Colts trade up or not, they will likely be starting fresh with either Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, or even Kentucky’s Will Levis. While all three prospects have their share of questions, placing them under Steichen’s stewardship gives either one a capable guiding hand to start their careers with.

For a team that needs a reset in many aspects, Steichen makes a lot of sense for the Colts. If they pair him with the right quarterback come Draft time, they have the potential to make some serious noise in the near future.

1. DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

There aren’t too many good things you can say about Texans management right now. They have looked like a haven for chaos and instability, earning some well-deserved heat for bringing in David Culley and Lovie Smith only to cut them like bait after just one season each. This alone made me think that a candidate like Ryans was out of reach, despite the close ties he has with the organization. Instead, the former player signed a six-year deal with the team, hopefully giving him the time he needs to implement his vision. It worked with his former employers in San Francisco, so the strategy itself is certainly worth a try.

While the argument could be made that the Texans should have complemented a rookie quarterback with an offensive-minded coach, it’s hard to think Houston made the wrong decision here. While Ryans started with Nick Bosa and Fred Warner as established stars, he was able to get the best out of many players. Talanoa Hufanga went from unheralded safety to a Pro Bowler this season under Ryans’ watch. Azeez Al-Shaair will get a huge payday in free agency thanks to Ryans, possibly even reuniting with him in Houston. Charvarius Ward outperformed more ballyhooed free agent cornerbacks such as J.C. Jackson this season. All of that, in at least some capacity, was due to the work of Ryans, who should work wonders with a Houston team that has potential, but needs someone to help them take the next step.

Ryans was a near-perfect hire for Houston in a cycle where they had arguably the lowest expectations. That alone is worthy of the top spot.


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