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The NFL Coaching Carousel is constantly spinning
It was a relatively muted year for head coaching changes, as only five teams opted for new hires. But the turnover at the coordinator level was in-line with recent history. Sixteen teams – 50% of the league – are ushering in new offensive coordinators, while twelve teams have new defensive coordinators, assuming Buffalo doesn’t name a formal replacement for Leslie Frazier.
Fantasy football managers know full well the importance of getting coaching hires right. A year ago, the industry was elated at the prospect of Russell Wilson being unlocked as a passer in Denver. But the head coach and play-caller Nathaniel Hackett didn’t last the season, as the Broncos finished dead last in points scored. Meanwhile, the Lions promoted Ben Johnson – a little-known position coach – as Anthony Lynn’s replacement. Most assumed it would be another lost year of uninspired offensive output. But Johnson took the Lions from a 25th-ranked offense in 2021 (under Lynn’s watch) to the No. 5 offense in 2022.
This season, fourteen teams will have new offensive play-callers. Each situation brings its own degree of risk and opportunity. Fantasy managers need to understand where the changes are most likely to positively and negatively impact player performance.
Evaluating coaches is difficult, but we can try to handicap the fantasy impact by focusing on three lenses:
- What is their play-calling experience?
- How have they performed in the past?
- Are they implementing a new system?
The Yin and Yang of Expectations: Sean Payton vs. Mike McCarthy
Ask 100 NFL fans whether they prefer Sean Payton or Mike McCarthy, and Payton will run away with the poll. Yet, the veteran head coaches have had remarkably similar careers.
|Years in NFL
|Years as NFL Head Coach
|Wins above 0.500
|Years as Play-caller
|Super Bowl Appearances
|Super Bowl Wins
But perception is also about expectations. In his first season in Denver, Sean Payton takes over the league’s worst offense. He could field a league-average unit, a massive improvement over the 2022 Broncos. Whereas Mike McCarthy is taking over play-calling duties in Dallas for a team that had the No. 4-ranked offense last season. McCarthy has nowhere to go but down, yet he seems to think he can get Dallas over the hump and into a Super Bowl.
Mike McCarthy – Dallas Cowboys
- New system? NO
- Experience as an NFL play-caller? YES, 18 seasons
- Past performance? Mixed, trending down in the last few years in Green Bay
The Situation: The Cowboys' offense finished 17th in McCarthy’s first year, but Dak Prescott only played five games. The unit bounced back in 2021 (1st) and 2022 (4th), with Kellen Moore calling plays. But McCarthy couldn’t stomach someone else calling plays and jettisoned Moore, despite his incredible success. McCarthy has much at stake, as anything less than elite production will be considered a falloff. While McCarthy’s career as a play-caller is full of highlights, the Packers' offense fell off in his final four seasons, partly because McCarthy was unwilling to evolve. Has he learned his lesson? Can he bring more creativity to tempo and formation than we saw in Green Bay, a by-the-books West Coast offense?
The Verdict: Regression is likely. McCarthy scared everyone with his Combine comments, and it’s hard to imagine he can match Moore’s elite success. But Prescott is talented and experienced, the key offensive pieces return, and they’ve added Brandin Cooks. Dallas’ offense won’t match the 2021-2022 heights, but it should remain a Top-10 fixture, albeit with a heavier focus on the ground game. Will that be enough to save McCarthy’s job?
Sean Payton – Denver Broncos
- New system? YES
- Experience as an NFL play-caller? YES, 18 seasons
- Past performance? Hall of Fame worthy, but almost entirely with Drew Brees
The Situation: Denver was a preseason darling 12 months ago, but Nathaniel Hackett’s tenure was historically bad. He ceded play-calling duties months into the season and was fired at the season’s end. The Broncos grabbed the brass ring in Sean Payton, who was far and away the most coveted head coaching candidate league-wide. Payton’s resume is unquestioned, but most of his success came with Drew Brees at the helm. New Orleans finished 19th in 2021 with Jameis Winston, by comparison. Can Payton resurrect Russell Wilson’s career?
The Verdict: Improvement is assured, but don’t expect a return to elite levels in 2023. Payton is taking over the league’s worst (32nd) offense; there’s nowhere to go but up. But it will take time to implement his playbook. One thing to consider, the Saints only Super Bowl season coincided with one of the few times they ran the ball nearly 50% of the time. Could that be the answer for Denver in 2023? Wilson was at his best in Seattle when he didn’t have to throw 600 times, so there’s precedent.
Once More, With Feeling: Bill O’Brien and Todd Monken
Two of college football’s most successful play-callers – Bill O’Brien and Todd Monken – are returning to the NFL this year. O’Brien heads back to New England, where he first made a name for himself, while Monken joins a Ravens team that may or may not have Lamar Jackson to build around. Will O’Brien and Monken’s success at SEC powerhouses translate to the NFL, where they won’t have the same colossal talent advantages?
Bill O’Brien – New England Patriots
- New system? NO
- Experience as an NFL play-caller? YES, five seasons
- Past performance? Mixed, but far better than the incumbents
The Situation: Bill Belichick may have finally overestimated his abilities last year by lazily handing the keys to the offense over to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, two long-time lieutenants with minimal experience coaching the offensive side of the ball. The Patriots were 17th in points scored and were below average in passing (20th) and rushing (24th). His solution? Re-hire Bill O’Brien, who last coached for the Patriots in 2011. O’Brien left New England for Penn State and then returned to the NFL as the head man in Houston for six years before most recently taking over as the OC at Alabama. The Crimson Tide fielded the No. 6 (2021) and No. 4 (2022) offenses nationally under O’Brien, but it’s worth noting that was a slight step back from the Steve Sarkisian years. And no one had more talent than Alabama. But O’Brien’s understanding of offensive principles, including RPOs and spread formations, should play well in his return to the NFL, and quarterback Mac Jones comes from the same collegiate pedigree.
The Verdict: We’ll see more improvement than you expect. We underestimate the value of continuity, and although the Patriots' offense scared no one in 2022, it was league-average with arguably the most inept offensive coaching staff in Belichick’s history. O’Brien isn’t changing the system and has a history with Belichick and the other coaches. He also knows Mac Jones’ tendencies well. The Patriots' personnel isn’t good enough to step back into the elite tier, but don’t be shocked if O’Brien’s offense isn’t balanced (run-heavy), capable of big plays, and has the Patriots back toward the Top 10 at season’s end.
Todd Monken – Baltimore Ravens
- New system? YES
- Experience as an NFL play-caller? YES, but only one season
- Past performance? Uninspiring overall, but elite recently
The Situation: The Ravens are at a crossroads. John Harbaugh enters his 16th season at the helm with more questions than answers. It’s been more than a decade since the Super Bowl victory, and the team has only won two playoff games since. The Ravens parted ways with Greg Roman after four seasons of diminishing returns. In 2019, Roman burst onto the scene as Baltimore fielded the No. 1 offense, and Lamar Jackson was League MVP. But the offense fell in each subsequent season (7th, 17th, and 19th), and Jackson’s play (and health) have never matched that first year together. Hiring Todd Monken is a fascinating move. This is his third stint as an NFL offensive coordinator (Tampa Bay 2016-2018, Cleveland 2019), but he only called plays for one of those seasons. His star was fading when he left the NFL for the University of Georgia. To his credit, he vaulted the Bulldogs' offense from moribund (38th in 2022) to elite (9th and 5th in 2021 and 2022, respectively), and Georgia won back-to-back national championships because the offense was finally able to keep pace with the always-elite defense under head coach Kirby Smart. So now Monken returns to the pros at 57 with something to prove.
The Verdict: Encouraging if Lamar Jackson remains. At the risk of hedging our bets, Monken’s success hinges on the quarterback situation. Monken was an aggressive, creative play-caller at Georgia. He played with tempo, leveraged no-huddle at times, and created space for his best athletes. And he built elite passing offenses around speedy vertical threats and all-purpose tight ends. That’s a blueprint for winning with the Ravens personnel. But if Jackson isn’t re-signed, all bets are off because the Ravens would likely go with a stopgap measure in 2023, targeting their new long-term answer in 2024.
Shine Bright Like a Diamond: Shane Steichen and Kellen Moore
If there’s a future Hall of Fame coach in his new crop of play-callers, it’s likely one of these two young guns. Both have four seasons as NFL play-callers and have shown adaptability and resilience, albeit in different ways.
Shane Steichen – Indianapolis Colts
- New system? YES, but similar roots
- Experience as an NFL play-caller? YES, four seasons
- Past performance? Excellent and adaptable
The Situation: Shane Steichen gets his first head-coaching gig at 37 years old after two years as Nick Sirianni’s offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Steichen eerily mirrors Frank Reich, the man he replaces. Both were OCs for the Chargers and Eagles before getting the Colts' head job. Both have similar offensive schematic roots. And both built their reputations on quarterback development. What’s exciting about Steichen is he’s been instrumental in developing Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts – two of the league’s best young signal callers. Steichen steps into a Colts offense that bottomed last year (30th in points), partly because of poor quarterback play and an injury to the offensive centerpiece (Jonathan Taylor). Steichen will call plays as head coach and most likely build the offense around a rookie quarterback.
The Verdict: Improvement is assured, but the Colts are a multi-year turnaround. The offense ranked ninth in 2021, with Carson Wentz under center, thanks to Taylor’s powerhouse running. Presuming Taylor is 100% after last year’s injury, Steichen immediately has the edge over Reich. The big question is who quarterbacks the team, and do they get the pick right? Steichen’s ability to develop young quarterbacks is undeniable. Many coaches preach adaptability but fail to demonstrate it; Steichen took an Eagles offense in 2021 that lacked playmakers and morphed it into the most run-heavy offense, leading to a surprise playoff berth. And then, in 2022, with a fully-stocked cupboard, he unleashed the league’s No. 3 scoring offense that was equally adept at throwing 45 times or running it 40 times, whatever it took to win.
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